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In 2014, a young Zack Steffen watched his idol Tim Howard produce one of the best goalkeeping performances in World Cup history.
Howard, then at Everton, made a record 16 saves for the United States against Belgium. The round of 16 clash ended in defeat for the US but Howard’s heroics were the stuff of legend.
“He was just a stud in goal over here and with the national team,” Steffen told SPORTbible.
“His presence in goal, his leadership, and his intensity - he was like a lion. It was really fun to watch. As a little black kid growing up in America, watching an American play over here, it was really inspiring.
“I was watching with my friends in the basement and it was amazing. We were in the round of 16. All I wanted us to do was score though! I felt so bad for him but it was just an outstanding performance.
“It was unfortunate we couldn’t go through but it was a great day for him and US soccer goalkeeping.”
Fast forward eight years and Steffen is following in Howard’s footsteps. He played six games as the USA qualified for the World Cup in Qatar, where they have been paired with England, the country he resides in.
The Manchester City man is living the dream, having become one of many American shotstoppers to play in the Premier League – a competition he used to watch the highlights of when he was a youngster.
“It was tough with it not being on TV so much and it continued to grow as I got older, but my main memory was always watching the Premier League review show with my dad on Sunday nights around eight or nine at night, and my sisters would go to bed and my mum knew it was coming on.
“She obviously likes football but she's not as diehard as my dad and I are. We would always watch that and then critique the goalkeepers and then watch and see the goals.
“I would always kind of learn from that and see what the goalkeepers could have done differently.
“I liked the Chelsea team when Jose Mourinho was there with [Didier] Drogba and [Frank] Lampard. That was a really fun team to watch.”
Steffen signed for City in 2019 in a deal that Columbus Crew said was the most expensive in MLS history for a goalkeeper.
He’d been named as the 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year following a series of solid displays but thought his agent was pulling his leg when he said Pep Guardiola and City were interested.
He explained: “I thought he was joking! Because it was a couple of weeks after another deal came about and that was a tough one to turn down and I didn't know if I was going to take it or not.
“And then a couple of weeks later Man City came. So it was really what was meant to happen, obviously. It was surreal and just a very exciting and very proud moment and time for myself and my family.”
Born in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Steffen grew up playing basketball, baseball, “a little bit of football” and soccer – as it is commonly known as across the pond.
Although he believes playing those sports helped him with “some different hand eye coordination and skills” in between the sticks, Steffen wasn’t always a goalkeeper.
He was a tough-tackling defender but then that all changed one day when he was 10 years of age. The story goes that his team’s ‘keeper didn’t show up for a tournament because his parents wouldn’t let him.
“His grades weren't good in school, so we had to find a keeper. I raised my hand and did well and had fun with it. And it just stuck.”
It was at around 12 when Steffen had to drop other sports in order to focus on football.
“I had to pick which sport I wanted to go with and I was best at football. I had the most fun with football so that's what I decided to go with.”
He was approached to turn professional at the age of 15 but turned it down as he wanted go to college and “wanted to still grow up a little bit”.
Although his mum “hammered” in that he needed to take his studies carefully too, hence him majoring in marketing - the former Philadelphia Union academy player joined college team Maryland Terrapins and made 48 appearances, as well as being named the ‘Most Outstanding Defensive Player’ in the 2013 NCAA Division I Men's Soccer Tournament.
He ended up signing professionally with SC Freiburg before returning to the states with Crew.
It was there that he linked up with his old teammate Alex Crognale, who also went to Maryland. And these days the pair are using their platform for good with ‘VOYCENOW’, a non-profit organisation that came to life after the murder of George Floyd in America.
They’ve linked up with OneFootball for a social justice and racism campaign, creating six pieces of clothing – including t-shirts, a cropped hoodie and a goalkeeper hero shirt. All the proceeds go to VOYCENOW, helping underprivileged kids back in America.
“I have had conversations, obviously, about all types of different stuff. So it has just stayed close. And I was in Germany at the time with my sister during COVID and I saw this video. And I just got talking, and we want to make a difference and use our platforms for more than just personal wealth and personal gain.
“And we knew a lot of athletes that kind of felt the same way. So, we decided to make VOYCENOW and give back to minority children that need help and resources, the resources that I had growing up, that gave me a better chance to kind of get me to where I am today.
“My mum, growing up, she just drilled in me just to always be positive, always be nice. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it, and just to be kind to others and treat them how you want to be treated.
“So my community back home and my family and my friends, they really made me who I am today and got me to where I am today.
“And without them I know I wouldn't be here. So, I want to give back and give these kids that need a helping hand and need resources and opportunities. I want to help provide that for these kids and give them hope and motivation that they can walk in my shoes someday.”
Family is everything for Steffen, who was the words "forever my family" and four German words as a nod to his four younger siblings – sisters Katy and Lexy and brothers Ben and Cole.
His mum raised three kids on her own for six years as his biological father was not around. His stepdad came into the picture when he was around six and he is the individual the 26-year-old calls ‘dad’.
He’s thankful that he stepped into their lives. But growing up, Steffen says his family didn’t have a lot of money to get by.
“Sometimes we couldn't, we didn't have the power to turn on the lights. And I'm starting to slowly learn about that now as my mum is opening up with me about those, those stories as I get older. But yeah, I mean, my mum worked really hard to give us the best life that she could.
“I'm very, very fortunate to be in such a great situation and I know that I'm not here on my own. So I want to be able to give back to communities.”
Calm and laid-back, Steffen is almost the antithesis of the stereotypical goalkeeper but he also has the “strong mentality” to be the last line of defence and ultimately a leader.
It’s easy to see why Guardiola likes him as his deputy to Ederson, though it wasn’t plain-sailing at City from the off.
“It was just about learning Pep’s style and City’s style. And just trying to learn what the guys around me like to do and trying to get up to speed with them and get better.
“In training, I struggled at some times. But the guys around me stuck with it and I stuck with it.
“And I mean, they're the best players in the world so they make my job pretty easy most of the time.
“It's really crazy how fast your body can and your mind can really adapt. In the beginning it was tough but we got we got there.”
Steffen has formed quite the goalkeeping circle with Ederson and former England goalkeeper Scott Carson, who he describes as a “big spirit” and a chief provider of jokes and banter.
He’s made 20 appearances across two seasons, largely playing in the cup competitions and notably keeping a clean sheet in last year’s Carabao Cup final win over Spurs at Wembley.
Ederson, arguably the best goalkeeper in world football when he comes to distribution, is City’s first-choice.
But Steffen, having signed a new long-term deal in November, enjoys the healthy competition at the Etihad Stadium.
“He’s definitely out there,” Steffen finished on his Brazilian goalkeeping colleague.
“He's very calm. very mellow but then a little crazy and really doesn't care. I would definitely say he's a little bit crazy but not to where he'll like go and freak out at players.
“And some of the stuff that he does with his feet or decision making he'll come out and come out for ball like at halfway and get it and be totally calm at the half at the midfield line with ball, with guys running.
“We're athletes, we're competitors, we all want to play. My job is to push him and, and to make him better and, and that's exactly what I try to do. And that's what you’ve got to do as teammates, push the guy, to push the team, in the forward direction."
Featured Image Credit: Image: PA & Maryland & OneFootball x VOYCENOW
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