DUSSELDORF, Germany — The smoke billowed throughout the Merkur Spiel Arena on Sunday as the pyrotechnic-heavy displays by both sides of the Rhein Derby filled the stadium with noise and color and the glare of bright red flares.
It was a scene like Zack Steffen had never played in front of before, and his first real taste of a club derby definitely did not disappoint. The U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper rose the occasion, stepping up to make the one big save he was called on to make, one which preserved Fortuna Dusseldorf’s 1-0 lead and came just before Steffen’s team went right down the field for the game-clinching insurance goal and precious derby victory.
“The fans, the atmosphere was amazing,” Steffen said after the match. “You could definitely tell it was a derby. It’s fun to play in. It was loud, it was smokey, it was intense, it was physical. It was a really fun game.”
It was a far cry from the experience Steffen endured less than a month earlier, an ocean away in Canada, when he and the USMNT suffered through a shocking 2-0 Nations League loss that put the U.S. team’s chances of reaching the tournament’s knockout rounds in jeopardy, while also casting more uncertainty around Gregg Berhalter’s project.
In the weeks since that loss, Steffen and several of his USMNT teammates have flourished with their club teams, a trend that should give them confidence heading into the upcoming rematch with Canada on November 15 in Orlando.
“We want revenge,” Steffen said. “We want to play better. We want to become more of a team, and show our fans that we want it. We obviously have a lot to settle with them.”
Steffen believes the USMNT is positioned to improve on its disappointing showing in October with the help of several key players who are currently in good form, including himself, Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent.
“That’s what soccer is, it’s trying to find that consistency, playing week in and week out, and playing well,” Steffen said. “Doing well and feeling good. We’re young. We’re a young group, so it’s going to take time and unfortunately it’s a process. Not everything comes at once. We’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding.”
Steffen has one more game with Fortuna Dusseldorf before he rejoins the USMNT in Orlando for the Canada rematch, on Saturday on the road against Weston McKennie and Schalke. Fortuna Dusseldorf will be the underdogs, but will also be looking to build on its recent run of good form, having won two of three matches, and having come off a a derby victory that left a lasting memory on those in attendance, and those who played in it like Steffen.
“It was amazing. It was fun. These are the games you live for, with that intensity and that much passion from the fans,” Steffen said of his first Rhein Derby. “It gives us extra motivation and confidence to go out there and fight for them.”