Zack Steffen knew playing time would be tough to come by at Manchester City when he made the decision to join Pep Guardiola’s side rather than going on another loan after last season’s stint at German side Fortuna Dusseldorf, but he has no regrets.
A month into his stint as Ederson’s back-up in goal for the Premier League title contenders, Steffen believes he has made the right decision to join the Citizens, even though he has managed just two appearances since the new season began.
“Just the talent they have at that club, just to be in training with those guys every day. It’s making me better,” Steffen said on Tuesday. “It’s pushing me in ways that I definitely wasn’t pushed in the past, at different levels of my career.
The 25-year-old goalkeeper is in his first USMNT camp in more than a year, having last appeared for Gregg Berhalter’s side in the October 2019 Nations League loss to Canada. A bout of knee tendonitis a year ago, followed by the Coronavirus pandemic, has kept Steffen away, but he returns to the USMNT healthy and feeling sharp after his first few months at Manchester City.
“I’m really enjoying getting to just learn new things, look at how they view football over there,” Steffen said. “Just in every aspect it’s quicker, it’s faster, it’s more intense, it’s sharper. You really have to be focused and dialed in, and on your game every day, every training. You can’t take days off, you can’t take really any time off during training.
“For me it’s really good to see the professionalism of how these guys work, day in and day out.”
Steffen has made two appearances for Manchester City so far this season, both in the EFL Cup, but while that is far from the workload he had grown accustomed to in MLS with the Columbus Crew, or more recently with Fortuna Dusseldorf while on loan last season, Steffen has also had the opportunity to work with Pep Guardiola, an experience that has helped him grow as a player.
“He has a good balance of being focused and intense, but with that he brings humor and he brings his genuine-ness and his kindness,” Steffen said of Guardiola. “It’s been cool to see how he works, how his coaching staff works.”
Steffen has successfully overcome the knee tendonitis that cost him much of the second half of his season at Fortuna Dusseldorf. He enjoyed a strong first half of the 2019-2020 season in the Bundesliga, drawing praise for being one of the bright spots on a bad Fortuna side, but persistent knee pain sidelined him. Knee pain he is thankful to have overcome.
“The knee is good. It was a long time, unfortunate, but that comes with the game,” Steffen said. “Coming back to City, they really took care of me, and made sure it got treated the right way, and strong again and all that. The knee’s good. It was a tough time in Germany, it was frustrating. We just couldn’t seem to find the right way to go about things and get me back on the field.”
Steffen returns to the USMNT still considered the top option in goal, and is expected to start on Thursday against Wales. He returns to a team with an improving collecting of defensive talent, led by rising fullbacks Sergino Dest, Reggie Cannon and Antonee Robinson, as well as defensive leader John Brooks, and promising centerback prospect Chris Richards.
“What we have in front of me, I’m really excited, I’m really looking forward to playing with those guys,” Steffen said of the USMNT defense. “Just to get the experience with those guys is crucial. especially after missing out on the other camps.
“We have a lot of talent,” Steffen said. “We’ve got to really just come together as much as we can in these days leading up to the game. Having the conversations off the field and getting to know what they like on the field as well.”
The upcoming matches against Wales and Panama may just be friendlies, but they carry added importance due to the lengthy layoff the USMNT has had, and also because the full USMNT squad won’t have a chance to come together again until March. Given the rapid rise of so many young players in the USMNT player pool, there is growing attention surrounding the team, and Steffen is fully aware that he and the team will be expected to start delivering on all that promise.
“America as a whole has high expectations,” Steffen said. “We have high expectations for ourselves. I think that’s just how the mentality has to be to reach the levels we want to reach. We kind of just shut out the outside noise and are really just focused on what we can control.”