A man walks to the goal after 120 minutes of exhilarating and exhausting football.
D.C. United, reborn following the move to their new stadium and the signing of Wayne Rooney that past summer, had done the impossible and gone from the bottom of the Eastern Conference and made it to the Playoffs.
But now they were faced with a penalty-shootout against the Columbus Crew.
They battered their Ohio-based opponents for the majority of the game, but after taking the game into extra-time at 1-1 and then both teams scoring again to make it 2-2, penalties would ultimately decide who progressed to the next round.
For D.C. United, the nerves kicked in, for Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, he knew the game was already won.
A keeper for the big event
Sure enough, Columbus won 3-2 on penalties, with Steffen saving two penalties, including one from Rooney.
Though the Crew would be knocked out in the next round by the New York Red Bulls, the game raised Steffen’s stock a year after the 23-year-old Pennsylvania-born keeper introduced himself to the world in similar fashion, keeping a clean sheet in the Playoffs against Atlanta United, and then being the star man in the shootout.
If 2017 was Steffen’s breakout year, 2018 was the year the world recognised his potential. The Crew star was voted MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and US Soccer’s Men’s Player of the Year following an international year that saw the shot-stopper assert himself as the new American #1.
And in 2019, Steffen will be taking his trade to Manchester City where he will have the belief that he can challenge for Ederson’s starting spot.
Pep Guardiola is one of the most specific managers in world football. He wants players in certain positions to do certain things as part of his master plan to win games beautifully.
For goalkeepers, Guardiola wants his man between the sticks to be as good with their feet as they are with their hands and to act almost like an extra defender when possession is high up on the pitch. Steffen matches this criteria.
The Columbus keeper is not only a fantastic shot-stopper and someone who thrives on the high-stakes environments of big matches, but Steffen is also a goalkeeper who can actually play a bit of football.
His on-the-ball talent is still raw, though, and still needs developing before he can reach a standard Guardiola is satisfied with, but the potential is there for Steffen to become a great ball-playing-goalkeeper and a star on the European stage.
Falling into the corporate machine
This all sounds great on paper. Manchester City sign the best American keeper currently playing, Steffen learns under some of the best coaches in football, and the club expands their reach and popularity in a rising supporter market in North America. But will Steffen ever play for them?
When the news broke that Steffen was heading to Manchester, MLS and US national team fans were ecstatic, but then one detail of the transfer broke all that excitement and shattered any hope that Steffen was in Guardiola’s plans for this season. The keeper will join City in the summer window.
There are some logical reasons, though, as to why the move has been pushed back until the summer. The biggest being Steffen only has six US international caps and simply doesn’t have enough international experience to acquire a work permit to play in the UK.
Given City’s current goalkeeping situation, this crushing blow could mean we might not ever see Steffen in Manchester colours, but that’s just modern-day football.
A doorway into Europe
There’s a silver lining to everything in life, and for Steffen, that silver lining is that this move will put him on the radar for clubs all over Europe.
Steffen has long been linked with a move to Europe, with clubs in Germany and England always rumoured to be after the American, and a player of his quality sitting on the bench at Man City is bound to attract suitors for season-long loan-deals.
Loan deals will be getting a major revamp next summer with clubs having a set limit of the number of players they can send out on loan each season, and Steffen will likely be one of those players for City who will leave on loan to get first-team football.
Steffen’s transfer might be a mixed bag for now, but in the future, the American might thank Man City and CFG for bringing him to Europe and opening the door to reaching his full potential.