You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Zack Steffen opens up about missing the World Cup and returning to the USMNT this month

Philadelphia Inquirer 3/23/2023 Jonathan Tannenwald, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Zack Steffen came home last summer to speak to kids at the R.W. Brown Boys & Girls Club in North Philadelphia, on behalf of his VOYCENOW charity. © HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Zack Steffen came home last summer to speak to kids at the R.W. Brown Boys & Girls Club in North Philadelphia, on behalf of his VOYCENOW charity.

Time heals wounds, but it doesn’t necessarily erase memories.

It’s been four and a half months since Downingtown’s Zack Steffen was surprisingly left out of the U.S. men’s soccer team’s World Cup squad, and nearly a year since he last played for his country.

Now, finally, he’s back with the team, one of three goalkeepers on the 24-player squad for this month’s Concacaf Nations League group stage games.

And he’s ready to talk about it all, to a degree he rarely has before.

“I was inconsistent with the [training] camps and the games, and had some injuries,” Steffen told The Inquirer in an interview this week. “COVID [he caught it during the Sept. 2021 FIFA window] didn’t allow me to travel to some countries for qualifiers; I had some injuries that kept me out of camp, or injuries that kept me out of games. And then when I pulled out of camp in May [and] June last year, that was a shock to Gregg [Berhalter], I think.”

Gio Reyna, Zack Steffen return to USMNT for this month’s Concacaf Nations League games

It was known that Steffen withdrew from the U.S. team’s big summer gathering due to family issues, missing four games and a long training camp before then. He hasn’t said much about what those issues were, and didn’t again.

But the scale of Berhalter’s reaction is a revelation. He had been Steffen’s manager not just with the national team, but with the Columbus Crew from 2016-18 when Steffen returned from an early-career stint in Germany.

Now combine that with the injuries Steffen referred to: back issues that sidelined from World Cup qualifiers in Jan. 2022, and knee issues in August and September that kept him out of the last warmup games before the World Cup.

“The ‘keepers — Matt [Turner], Sean [Johnson] and Ethan [Horvath] — I mean, they were consistent and they were with the team throughout the whole cycle,” Steffen said, “and Gregg just decided to go with them.”

Berhalter’s decision left Steffen struggling.

“It was tough,” he said. “God tested me. It definitely wasn’t easy, as you can imagine — just surprising and, yeah, just not what I expected. And it wasn’t part of my plan, but I know that God ultimately has a greater plan and path for me.”

So Steffen leaned on his faith — and also on his talents. His season-long loan move from English superpower Manchester City to second-division club Middlesbrough was also a bumpy ride at first, but a manager change last October settled things for the team and the player.

Alejandro Zendejas’ commitment a needed boost at an uncertain time for the USMNT

Steffen has started every game he’s been healthy for, 35 in all, and has a 13-4-1 record since the World Cup. Middlesbrough is third in the standings, the top spot for the Premier League promotion playoffs, and three points from second place’s automatic promotion berth.

“I think this year has brought me some peace and understanding of who I am and what kind of goalkeeper I am,” he said. “I’ve dived heavily into my faith, and that’s helped as well. Confidence is good, still striving for bigger and better heights, and bigger goals and dreams.”

Steffen is pragmatic about it, too.

“Obviously, the journey is never over of perfecting your craft,” he said. “Nothing’s perfect, especially goalkeeping.”

He praised Middlesbrough manager Michael Carrick, a former Manchester United star player, calling the club’s atmosphere “another brotherhood” like the U.S. national team.

In fact, Steffen said, he’s in such a good place right now that he doesn’t intend to return to Manchester City when his loan expires. The club already knows, so it won’t be news to the staff there. But it likely will be to many U.S. fans.

“I don’t think I’ll go back,” he said. “No, I want to be playing. Although I had a great time at City and I love those guys, and obviously [it’s] an amazing club, I don’t really have any plans to go back.”

The U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier showed Zack Steffen at his best

Now things turn to the present. In a way, the U.S. team is at a starting point, since these games are the first with the A-team since the World Cup. But to Steffen and many other players, it’s a continuation of the momentum that’s already been built: returning to men’s soccer’s biggest stage, reaching the round of 16, and now aiming toward next year’s Copa América and the 2026 World Cup on home turf.

“It doesn’t really feel like a starting-over point,” Steffen said, “because of what we all built: the culture, and the brotherhood, and the playing style, and the work ethic and beliefs and standards that we’ve all created.”

Steffen praised interim U.S. manager Anthony Hudson for steering the ship while the U.S. Soccer Federation seeks a new sporting director who will hire the next full-time boss — with Berhalter still among the candidates.

“I think being a coach, you need to know your players,” Steffen said. “And you need to be able to relate to them and be able to humanize with them, and be able to listen to them, and know how to push them, and how they work, and vice versa. I think [Hudson] is definitely that type of guy.”

Steffen is also thrilled to be one of five players on this U.S. squad with ties to the Philly region — with Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Christian Pulisic, and Auston Trusty — plus assistant coach B.J. Callaghan, who coached Steffen in the Union academy years ago.

“It’s awesome to have that type of camaraderie,” Steffen said. “Soccer is very prevalent in that area, and it’s really cool to grow up and continue your career — especially at the highest stage on the national team — with those guys, and continue to watch those guys and support those guys week in and week out. And then you get to come together every couple of months to play for your nation.”

Zack Steffen has a goal beyond success on the field: To give back

There has been talk in camp about Sea Isle and other Shore hotbeds as the players start to plan their summers. And when Steffen learned that there are many Wawas in the Orlando area where the U.S. has been training, he said he might have to take a detour. He’ll have a chance after Friday’s game at Grenada (8 p.m., TNT, Universo, Peacock), as the U.S. will return to Orlando to host El Salvador on Monday (7:30 p.m., TNT, Universo, Peacock).

Steffen also said he’d like to have a homecoming game one of these days. The U.S. men haven’t played in the Philly area since the summer of 2019, when Steffen and Pulisic faced Curaçao in the Gold Cup at Lincoln Financial Field. That was Aaronson’s rookie year with the Union, and McKenzie and Trusty were also still fresh-faced.

Imagine the roars they’d get now. Paxten Aaronson too, as he made his senior U.S. debut in January and his Bundesliga debut with Eintracht Frankfurt this weekend.

“Hell yeah,” Steffen said. “I’m a big Eagles fan — that was a rough second half of the Super Bowl. But yeah, it would be amazing to play at the Linc and meet some of the Eagles guys, have them out, and get a ‘W’ in Philly.”

Zack Steffen is one of many Union academy alums who are thriving in England

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon