When Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen returns to the area next week to play his hometown team, he’ll have plenty of support in the stands from friends and family. None will be wearing Union colors.
“No chance my mom would let them wear any Philadelphia shirts,” Steffen said.
The 22-year-old goalkeeper wore a Union jersey in his youth days, but it hasn’t taken long for the Downingtown, Pa. native or those closest to him to trade allegiance from the blue and gold to the yellow and black.
Steffen has also settled in with his new surroundings. Just three weeks ago, he moved into an apartment closer to the city center after living with the family of his college friend and Crew teammate Alex Crognale.
“Columbus is a great city and it’s a good team to be a part of,” Steffen said.
Steffen will face his hometown team for the first time at MAPFRE Stadium tomorrow, exactly one year to the day that he signed with the Crew, and four days later will play the Union again at Talen Energy Stadium.
“I have a lot of motivation to perform well,” Steffen said. “It will be a different feeling than the other 20 MLS games I've played this season, obviously.”
It won’t be Steffen’s first time playing in Chester, but he’d rather not remember the last time he played here - the 2013 College Cup final his Maryland Terps lost to Notre Dame.
At the time, Steffen was an 18-year-old freshman who had already created a name for himself in performances with U.S. youth national teams and for the Union Academy team, which he won a Generation adidas Cup with in 2012.
He left College Park after his sophomore year to sign with German club SC Freiburg. While in Germany, he made 14 appearances for Freiburg’s reserve team over two seasons and was named as the third choice keeper prior to making a decision to return to the U.S.
His signing with Columbus, which our friends at Massive Report did a nice job explaining, was salt on the wound for Union fans not unfamiliar with angst over goalkeeper signings. Evolving rules about homegrown player eligibility - the Union’s academy when Steffen was coming up was a shell of what it is today - left the Union out of the equation, according to head coach Jim Curtin, who coached Steffen when he was in the academy.
“(There are) a lot of guys in our league that should have been homegrowns for us but the league mechanisms change on the fly so Zack Steffen, Connor Maloney, Colton Storm, you could go through, there’s a good list of guys that should have been ours,” Curtin said in a press conference earlier this week. “There’s great players (from) here and Zack Steffen falls into that category, he’s done a great job for them.”
Despite his pedigree coming from Europe and the excitement around his performance for the United States in the 2015 U20 World Cup, Steffen spent his first half season with Crew mostly on loan with USL affiliate Pittsburgh Riverhounds, where he made nine appearances. Entering his first full season with the club, he was given a chance to fight for the starting job.
“I just went in there knowing that I had to perform and prove myself day in and day out,” he said. “Ever since then it's been a great ride. There’s been ups and downs obviously, but I've enjoyed every game I've played.”
That he would succeed in winning the starting job as one of only six goalkeepers in the league under the age of 23 and one of only two getting regular minutes (FC Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez, who is a month younger, is the other) didn’t come as a surprise to one of his former youth coaches at FC Delco (now Continental FC).
“What impressed me about Zack, was his presence in the goal despite being the youngest player in the group,” said Rob Irvine, who is now the head coach at La Salle University. “He commanded respect from his teammates through his daily approach and work in training.”
Massive Report recently did a midseason report card and gave him a B.
“All things considered, Zack Steffen has earned the starting spot,” Josh Enke wrote in his report card article. “He’s great at reading set piece shots, his extension and diving covers post to post, long shots are almost a non-factor against him, he’s a vocal leader, his reflexes are strong, he’s good with his feet and he’s not afraid to charge into the fray.”
That’s not great news for a Union team in need of points after failing their first test of a stretch of three games in eight days with a 2-1 loss to Montreal on Wednesday.
“Two shutouts and two wins would be great,” Steffen said.
If that’s the case on Wednesday, there will be one group of Philly fans in the stadium who will welcome it, and they’ll all be wearing Columbus Crew gear.