sports 3 days ago

Crew SC | 22-year-old keeper shows he belongs in MLS

The Columbus Dispatch — Andrew Erickson The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

April 20--Two months ago, on the eve of Crew SC's preseason trip to the Carolina Challenge Cup, coach Gregg Berhalter had two choices at goalkeeper to replace former starter Steve Clark.

But neither Brad Stuver nor Zack Steffen had emerged as a clear starter. Berhalter said at the time he would "probably prefer" using just one keeper from opening day onward but didn't rule out the idea of a by-committee goalkeeper setup if no obvious No. 1 materialized.

Seven games into the season, Berhalter has a bona fide starter in the 22-year-old Steffen, who is tied for fourth in Major League Soccer with 21 saves and who has a 1.14 goals-against average through the Crew's 4-2-1 start.

The Coatesville, Pennsylvania native exudes a calm that is uncommon for keepers his age, Berhalter said, and an ability to recover from mistakes -- an attribute he didn't always show before the team's trip to Charleston, South Carolina.

"That shows just how valuable real-game experience is," Berhalter said. "You can have ideas about these guys, but until they really get battle-tested you don't know. We saw signs in training that he wasn't going to recover from a mistake. But then in the game, what I'd say is he gradually started raising the intensity through preseason and got to a level we were very comfortable with."

A benchmark for goalkeepers, Berhalter often says, is the ability to make the big save and keep the game where it is. Steffen has used his 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame over the last two months to begin to fill out a highlight reel.

Steffen blocked a shot by Michael De Leeuw late in the season opener to preserve a 1-1 tie against Chicago. He stopped D.C. United's Jose Ortiz in space to maintain a 1-0 lead in what became the Crew's first win. Two big saves in the first half of the Crew's 2-1 win over Toronto on Saturday prevented a one-goal deficit from becoming two or three.

In the days leading up to the opener, Berhalter said he noticed a change in Steffen's confidence after a big save in a 2-1 preseason win over Atlanta. Steffen came off his line in the 60th minute to deny a clear scoring opportunity -- what would have been the go-ahead goal -- from Kenwyne Jones.

Through game experience, his poise has continued to build.

"Once he performed in the game, then it's a completely different situation because then you see he can react to mistakes, he can hang in there mentally, he can deal with pressure, all that stuff," Berhalter said.

As Steffen puts it, he has developed a mental toughness that has grown since the Charleston trip.

"I just try to stay out of my head as much as I can in the game," Steffen said. "I'm just trying to react and rely on instinct to make those saves."

He has had good and bad experiences on which to build those instincts.

Steffen yielded the opening goal in a 3-1 loss to Houston moments after his dangerous pass led to a turnover in the Crew's defensive third. He has knocked away much more difficult shots than the one that led to a goal by Nemanja Nikolic in a 1-0 loss at Chicago.

The difference between this Steffen and the one who arrived from German club SC Freiburg last July is that he is better able to move on.

Steffen's first MLS shutout followed his first loss. A huge first half against Toronto came after his second defeat.

"I mean, in life there are always going to be mistakes," Steffen said. "It's really just how you react and move forward and move on from those mistakes and how you can learn from them. Mistakes are going to happen."

As MLS continues to slow down for the young starter, he will expect fewer errors.

"I think it obviously takes a couple games to get into it, to get into the flow, but I think it's a good speed and I'm having fun," Steffen said.

aerickson@dispatch.com

@AEricksonCD

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