CINCINNATI — There were a lot of great performances in the U.S. men’s soccer team’s 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Mexico on Friday night at a rain-soaked and raucous TQL Stadium.
Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie scored the goals. Tim Weah was an artist on the right wing, and Brenden Aaronson ran Mexico’s back line ragged on the left — to the point that El Tri right back Luis Rodríguez poked him in the eye on the foul that was the Medford native’s last play of the night.
Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams were dominant in the midfield, the former with brilliant passing and the latter with his ball-hawking and transition play. Walker Zimmerman was imperious at centerback, no matter whether the ball came his way in the air or on the ground.
Behind them all was a player who didn’t get as much recognition in all the postgame chatter, but deserved his fair share.
In his 24th national team cap, Downingtown’s Zack Steffen played one of his best games in a U.S. jersey. He made four saves, including two big ones early on when Mexico was in its best form: a diving stop on Edson Álvarez in the 11th minute and a sliding block on a breaking-away Hirving Lozano in the 18th.
In the second half, Steffen easily handled a low, bouncing shot from Héctor Herrera in the 79th, not long after Pulisic had opened the scoring; and in the 94th, he caught a high curler from Lozano. Steffen’s ensuing punt was the last play of a game that gave the U.S. three wins over its fiercest rival in a calendar year for the first time in the matchup’s 87-year, 73-game history.
“I felt good tonight — I think the crowd and the guys’ energy, the team’s energy that we had all week, really made me feel comfortable,” Steffen said. “Two saves in the first half, that obviously gives a ‘keeper confidence.”
He was quick to add, though, a belief that “those are saves I have to make. That’s my job.” Which tells you that his standards are as high as ever even though he still isn’t playing much for his club team, England’s Manchester City, where he’s the backup to Brazilian No. 1 Ederson.
Steffen gets a lot of criticism from U.S. fans and media for his lack of playing time at City. No matter how good the quality of his teammates are at practice, it’s still not the same thing as a live game.
Another set of critics view New England Revolution netminder Matt Turner as not just a more frequent player, but a better shot-stopper. Turner showed his talents in racking up an 8-2-1 record across five World Cup qualifiers this fall and all six games in this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup — with five shutouts in the tournament, including over Mexico in the final.
After Turner was in net for the U.S.’ 1-0 loss at Panama on Oct. 11, manager Gregg Berhalter switched to Steffen for the next game three days later against Costa Rica. Berhalter signaled that he’d been planning on it all along, but the move still raised eyebrows — and Steffen looked shaky when he gave up a goal just 59 seconds after kickoff.
Fortunately, the U.S. overcame that in what ended up as a fairly comfortable 2-1 win. But Berhalter was hit with a slew of questions that night and in the weeks afterward, to the point on the eve of the Mexico game he made the rare move of publicly announcing that Steffen would start.
So yes, what Steffen did Friday night counts as a statement game.
“I thought Zack was excellent tonight,” Berhalter said. “It was a difficult decision to start him over Matt, because we think they’re both great goalkeepers. But I think he showed why we did start him. He was good with his feet, made a big save in the beginning, was great on crosses today, really led the line from the back, and had a good performance.”
Pulisic was also full of praise for his fellow Pennsylvania native.
“We know what he’s about, how calm he is on the ball,” he said. “A deserved shutout. Obviously, he played fantastic, but we know what he’s capable of. So it doesn’t surprise us.”
Take note of how Berhalter and Pulisic spoke of Steffen’s skill with his feet, not just with his hands. That is a big part of modern goalkeeping, and it’s especially true at Manchester City.
It therefore matters quite a bit that Steffen had 35 touches, completed 20 of 26 passes, and made eight recoveries.
Herculez Gomez, a former U.S. player who’s now an analyst for ESPN, called the night “vindication” for Berhalter, with Steffen “repaying the confidence your coach shows in you.”
“Zack Steffen took over tonight,” Gomez told The Inquirer after wrapping up his work on ESPN’s studio set at nearly 1 a.m. “When you see him in goal, you think Zack Steffen needs to come up big with saves, but he was also instrumental in the way he relieved pressure for the U.S. men’s national team. When that Mexican press came, he was instrumental in the way they played through, which made life very easy for Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie [in central midfield] to go in transition, which gave Mexico tons of fits.”
Steffen’s big game won’t necessarily earn him more playing time at Manchester City this season. He’ll probably be the starter in the FA Cup, and make some spot starts in Premier League and Champions League games that matter less than others.
But Berhalter doesn’t need to worry about that right now. Steffen’s game Friday night was exactly what he needed to return to the top of the U.S. depth chart.