One mistake doesn’t define a player, much less a goalkeeper, so it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that Pep Guardiola would come out in support of Zack Steffen after his awful mistake in Saturday’s FA Cup Final loss to Liverpool.
Guardiola’s penchant for having his goalkeepers handle the ball more than most other teams has long made him a forgiving coach who accepts that handling errors will take place when goalkeepers have the ball as often as Manchester City’s goalkeepers have it. It is that support that gives his goalkeepers the courage to do some of the things the system needs them to do.
U.S. men’s national team fans watching Steffen weren’t quite as forgiving, and were left far more worried by his performance. It is an understandable reaction after watching the USMNT’s first-choice goalkeeper deliver a stinker in the most important club match he will start this season because it also served as a reminder that we haven’t seen Steffen at his best in a long time.
It might seem unfair to pile onto Steffen because of Saturday’s blunder, but the error itself merely calls attention to a reality that has become increasingly difficult to ignore. A lack of playing time has left Steffen at a left well below his best, and his form in the limited opportunities he has had for club and country supports the idea that his game has regressed.
We didn’t see Steffen at his best in World Cup qualifying, not even after Gregg Berhalter re-installed him as the starter last Fall. Steffen didn’t have any shocking errors on par with what we saw Saturday, but he did have some questionable hiccups and also failed to deliver an elite game-saving performance at any point in the cycle.
That fact was made even more clear when he was matched up against Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas in the final qualifier. While Steffen appeared as if he could have done better on Costa Rica’s second goal, it was Navas who made the stunning saves to keep the Ticos in the match before they scored their two second-half goals to post a 2-0 victory.
USMNT fans have been waiting to see Steffen deliver some of those kind of heroics for a good while, and the longer they have waited, the easier it has been to correlate that long wait with his lack of matches for Manchester City.
Make no mistake, when Steffen is at his best ,he can be an elite goalkeeper, but it is difficult to find and maintain that level with just the occasional start.
And this brings us back to Saturday’s blunder. You will hear about how mistakes happen to the very best goalkeepers, which is true, but there is a big difference between a regular starter logging upward of 50 matches in a season having one or two mistakes in a campaign and a backup who barely sees the field having that many or more in the same time frame.
The time has come for Steffen to leave Manchester City in search of consistent playing time, because a lack of sharpness just isn’t going to do for a goalkeeper expected to be the starter for the United States at the World Cup. You could point to Matt Turner’s looming move to Arsenal and question whether he isn’t heading for a similar situation, but there is a far cry from a Turner potentially starting the first three months of his first season at Arsenal as the back-up in goal and Steffen having spent the past two years as a backup, going that long without consistent matches.
It isn’t likely to be easy to leave the Etihad, where Steffen gets to work with Brazilian star Ederson and learn from Pep Guardiola, but playing time needs to be the priority, with either a loan or outright transfer paving the way for Steffen to play regularly.
Steffen hasn’t earned consistent minutes since a successful loan stint with then-Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf in 2019. He looked sharp in the first half of the 2019-2020 season before injuries sidelined him in the second half of that campaign, leading to his eventual return to City.
Steffen’s injury issues are another cause for concern, and you can’t help but wonder just how long the list of potential suitors will be for a goalkeeper who hasn’t shown himself to be the most durable despite a relatively light workload over the past two years. Given his skill set, age and the potential for him to return to the level that earned him a high-profile move to Manchester City in the first place, there should be plenty of opportunities for him on the market if he seeks a move this summer.
It will ultimately be up to Steffen to decide whether it is worth him leaving Manchester City. The answer seems simple enough. He should prepare for a summer move. Not only because it can help him be in better position to start at, and excel at the World Cup, but also because he needs to start thinking about whether he wants to rebuilding his career as a starter or risk becoming a long-term backup, and potentially jeopardizing his status as the USMNT’s first-choice goalkeeper.