Zack Steffen’s quest for normalcy amid USMNT stardom

Long before the United States national team’s No. 1 jersey was his – before five-figure crowds, six-figure salaries and seven-figure transfer fees to superclubs owned by emirates – Zack Steffen’s parents used to worry.

Not incessantly, nor publicly. But ever since that first letter from U.S. Soccer arrived, the thought lingered. “Immediately obtain passport,” the note read, and pretty soon the Steffens understood why. So the concern lingered, stealthily, as Zack missed 52 days of school as a senior. As he jetted off to Turkey for the Under-20 World Cup a day after his high school graduation. As the long afternoons at sprawling sports complexes piled up.

“Oh my gosh,” Stefanie Steffen, Zack’s mother, would fret. “It’s so much soccer. He’s gonna come home one day and say, ‘I’ve had it. This is not fun anymore.’”

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So, whether she was dropping Zack off at youth practices in suburban Philadelphia or at airports for flights overseas, Stefanie’s final message as seat belts unbuckled remained consistent: “Go have fun.”

And for years, Zack did – still does today. He loved soccer. Loved goalkeeping. Loved, as he calls them now, the “hero moments.” He had them at elite youth clubs, but also in backyards. A decade later, he’d have them in front of 67,221 fans in Atlanta, and 58,251 against the soon-to-be world champs. He could soon add another to the collection in Sunday’s Gold Cup final – U.S. vs. Mexico, 9:15 p.m. ET, the first championship match of Steffen’s pro career.

But four and a half years ago, to jumpstart that career, Steffen jetted to Germany as an unprepared teen. Without his mother’s three-word reminder, his passion for the sport waned. He was homesick. Unhappy. “And when you’re unhappy,” Steffen says now, “it’s hard to be as passionate as you were about something.”

He is leaning forward in a Minneapolis hotel lobby, 48 hours before his first senior international tournament. A plush armchair struggles to contain his 6-foot-3 frame. Tattoos peek out from underneath a dark red U.S. Soccer hoodie as he shifts his weight from right to left, his right leg elongating, a mammoth left hand meeting his mostly-shaven cheek. A few teammates saunter by over his shoulder.

Steffen pauses often for thought. He supports sentences with ums and ahs, especially when conversation turns to that stint in Germany. It ended after 18 months, and only 14 appearances for SC Freiburg’s reserves, with a phone call home. Because, above all else, “it stopped being fun,” Stefanie explains. “When he called me to tell me he wanted to come home, that’s what he said: ‘I’m not having any fun anymore.’”

Zack Steffen loves playing soccer. But it must come with a healthy family balance. (Getty)
Zack Steffen loves playing soccer. But it must come with a healthy family balance. (Getty)

“But,” Stefanie clarifies, “I don’t think we view that time in Germany as a failure.”

“I learned a lot, off the field and on the field, about myself,” Zack adds.

Perhaps most of all, he learned – or decided – that soccer wasn’t his life. Rather, only part of it. And the distinction has helped guide him to the top of his profession.

Dreams vs. reality

Zack Steffen’s dreams crystalized on his living room couch. There, with stepdad Derek by his side, the unmistakable hues of the English Premier League filled the Steffens’ house. And to young Zack, they were “addicting.”

Television presented him with a view of European soccer that has hooked millions. The passion. The skill. The drama. The joy. For countless soccer-loving kids, it is the Promised Land, a footballing utopia to aspire to at all costs.

Few, however, understand what a cross-Atlantic move truly entails. “Uh huh,” Steffen nods when I mention the contrast. “A hundred percent. … I was going over there and thinking it was all going to be glorious. And it wasn’t.”

“It’s an amazing life, don’t get me wrong,” he clarifies. “But being a professional athlete, is ...” – he pauses, his memories floating about as he considers word choice – “... is not as glamorous as everybody sets it out to be.”

For Steffen, it was extremely difficult. Tucked in Germany’s southwestern corner, he struggled with cultural adaptations and language barriers. He had few friends, zero family members close by, and, for several months, no functional WiFi. To subsist, he visited a buddy’s apartment and downloaded some movies – only to run afoul of strict German laws and incur a hefty fine.

The soccer, meanwhile, was OK, though injury-riddled. More importantly, locker-room dynamics were … different. “Over here, we’re more relaxed, more chill,” Steffen says of American clubs. “Yeah, we all want to play, and start, but for the most part we’re friends off the field. Over there, especially with the Germans, it’s a little more cutthroat. Work, work, work,” he says while chopping one hand into the palm of the other.

Zack Steffen trains one day before the USMNT's 2019 Gold Cup semifinal against Jamaica. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
Zack Steffen trains one day before the USMNT's 2019 Gold Cup semifinal against Jamaica. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Soccer, he says, was often his “escape from the outside world.” Problem was, he hardly had any escapes from soccer. He would occasionally go out for meals, but often passed time in his apartment, alone. “He was just feeling really lonely, and isolated,” Stefanie says. Mother and son texted and FaceTimed when possible. But “the worse it got,” she says, “in terms of him being sad, and feeling isolated, he kinda just withdrew.” Back home in southeastern Pennsylvania on break, he shed tears. “And there was a heaviness to him that was new,” Stefanie says.

What made the German adventure so tough for Zack, above all else, was a distinctively deep family bond. Stefanie, whose father died when she was 14, had fostered it. “She would always force family time on us when we were young,” Zack says. “We’d always have family dinners throughout the week, and watch TV or movies as a family … no matter how crazy life got.”

Pro soccer, though, had created fissures in the bond, separated him from parents and four siblings. Somewhere along the way, he realized that wasn’t right. Wasn’t healthy. Wasn’t necessary.

“I want to share my experiences and my career with them,” Steffen says of his family. “And if they’re not there to support me, and see me, and the ups and downs, and be there for me, and celebrate with me, and build me up ... then why am I doing it?”

‘Teaching the person’

In July of 2016, Steffen returned stateside, to the Columbus Crew. Soon, he was off on loan to the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a struggling second-division club. He was off to a 5,000-seat riverside stadium that was often less than half full. And to a part-time goalkeeper coach being paid pennies.

But Pittsburgh offered consistent playing time and family adjacency. Parents and siblings would make the five-hour drive across Pennsylvania for every home game. The following year in Columbus, they only missed two or three.

What Steffen found in Columbus, though, was extended family – figuratively. Literally, he found teammates, like Wil Trapp, who were willing to mentor him. He found a head coach, Gregg Berhalter, and a goalkeeping coach, Pat Onstad, who made efforts to get to know Zack Steffen the Human Being. For Onstad, it was as much about teaching the goalkeeper as it was “teaching the person.”

They coached Steffen on the field, but also connected with him off it. Each facilitated the other. “When you connect with them on that level,” Onstad says, “Zack especially, he was much more open to criticism and information, and being willing to listen to it and adapt his game.” Onstad could push him harder, during training or afterward. That personal relationship, Steffen says – which didn’t really exist in Germany – “allows you to become closer, and care for each other more, and just give more effort both ways.”

Steffen, for his part, absorbed Onstad’s “tips” and “advice.” Separately, he sought out a sports psychologist, and read books on mental toughness, filing away the occasional anecdote that he felt could apply to him. “As a goalkeeper,” Steffen says, “you have so much time back there where you’re alone, and you’re talking to yourself in your head.”

So he trained his “mental endurance” in search of consistency, and quickly found it. He won a 2017 preseason battle for the starting goalkeeper gig. Led the Crew to the playoffs. Repelled high-flying Atlanta at his coming-out party. The following season, was named MLS’ Goalkeeper of the Year.

Zack Steffen was the hero of the Columbus Crew's playoff upset of Atlanta United in 2017. (Getty)
Zack Steffen was the hero of the Columbus Crew's playoff upset of Atlanta United in 2017. (Getty)

Meanwhile, on the international scene, he has filled the proverbial shoes left behind by his idol. Twelve years ago, with Steffen likely watching on a sofa outside Philly, Tim Howard backstopped the USMNT to a Gold Cup title at Soldier Field – the program’s last tournament triumph over a Mexican A-team. On Sunday, Steffen can follow in Howard’s footsteps and end the drought.

Then, win or lose, he’ll head back across the Atlantic. Back to Germany. This past winter, Premier League champion Manchester City paid a reported $7 million, potentially rising to $10 million, for Steffen. City will send him out on loan, reportedly to Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf – to the country that chewed him up and spit him out three short years ago.

But this foray into the unknown is different. Just because football is “first, second, third and fourth” on German priority lists doesn’t mean it has to be on his.

Work-life balance

When Zack Steffen emerges from a tunnel, onto a soccer pitch, he enters an intangible zone. His eyes will occasionally drill holes in the ground five yards ahead, his mind churning, focus unbending. On matchdays, he has his routine. Hip-hop music pounds into his ears. Stretching, thumb-taping and lace-tying always occur at customary times and intervals.

What Zack Steffen has that some athletes don’t, however, is a second zone. A non-soccer zone. When he walks into a family dinner nowadays, footy talk is taboo. “I like to use them kind of as a getaway,” Steffen says of his kin. Close friends, such as Trapp, can serve a similar purpose.

This, to be clear, is always who Steffen has been. He was the kid who felt conflicted about his 2013 U-20 World Cup participation as classmates celebrated at the beach. The kid who’d give mom the evil eye when she began to rave about his athletic accomplishments. “Mom, zip it,” was how Stefanie would interpret the look. “Doooon’t go there.”

In Freiburg four years ago, there was no getaway, no mechanism for Zack Steffen to use to escape Zack Steffen’s thoughts. Soccer enveloped him. “It’s very much like life or death over there,” he says of the sport’s role in Germany. Life itself had no room to breathe.

But as he gasped for figurative air, he gained a newfound appreciation for his support system back home. The family bond actually deepened. Now it’s the primary source of that elusive work-life balance. Just this past month, mere hours before his first competitive USMNT game, Steffen’s phone buzzed. It was a text from mom – more specifically, a picture of Fluff, the pet hamster they’d just gotten for Zack’s 8-year-old brother, Cole. Zack immediately FaceTimed Cole to share in the enthusiasm. Eleven days later, he surprised the whole family with a visit home the night before his Gold Cup quarterfinal.

In a few weeks, he will once again cruise above the Atlantic. He’ll return to that “cutthroat” footballing culture. He’ll leave friends and family behind. He will need to develop new soccer escape routes. “Sometimes,” he admits, “it is tough to get away.”

But he’s confident he will. His youngest sister, Lexy, will be accompanying him this time. So will the lessons from Freiburg. He is not so much a changed man as an incredibly more mature one.

He is still often private, a self-described “introvert and extrovert,” a description that makes perfect sense to those who know him. He remains reserved and somewhat guarded in public. Doesn’t care much for publicity or fanatical attention.

As our time in Minneapolis winds down, I offer him one more chance to tell the world something he’d want it to know.

“Um, maybe that I’m just a normal human being as well as a professional athlete,” he responds. “I’m a nice guy,” he continues, a grin now spreading across his face. “And I like to enjoy life, and be around people I love.”

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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