After a difficult spell at Freiburg, US goalkeeper Zack Steffen is settling well at Fortuna Düsseldorf. - © 2019 DFL
After a difficult spell at Freiburg, US goalkeeper Zack Steffen is settling well at Fortuna Düsseldorf. - © 2019 DFL

Why Zack Steffen is flourishing the second time around in the Bundesliga


He has saved a Wayne Rooney penalty, won over Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, been compared to USA icon Tim Howard, and already made an impact on the Bundesliga. No wonder it is hard to imagine Fortuna Düsseldorf's Zack Steffen once cried at the prospect of playing football.

After being voted the MLS's top goalkeeper in 2018, Steffen left Colombus Crew to join Manchester City on a four-year deal last season before the English Premier League champions loaned him to Fortuna for the 2019/20 campaign.

He now happily performs in front of tens of thousands of supporters, but there was a time when the 6'3" Steffen would shrink into the seat of his family's car at the prospect of having to play.

Watch: Zack Steffen, a Bundesliga star is born!

"For years, Zack would cry before games," revealed his mum, Stephanie, who had to coax her son into his boots and gloves with sweets. "He simply didn't want to get out of the car and get onto the pitch."

Homesick in Freiburg

Now 24, the prospect of a sugar rush is no longer what motivates Steffen, who has settled much more quickly into his second spell in Germany than he did his first, notably thanks to one of his sisters, Lexy, coming with him this time.

In 2015, he had arrived in Freiburg all alone, and a combination of playing in the reserve team and homesickness prompted a disillusioned Steffen to return to the US. "I thought I would go over there, and everything would be glamourous," said Steffen, the eldest of five siblings in a close-knit family.

Steffen found it impossible to settle at Freiburg. - imago/Heuberger

But the testing months spent in the Black Forest served him well. "He and our family have a lot of lessons that we learned from the time he was there," Stephanie said. "And I give him a lot of credit for gutting it out for as long as he did because I know it was a real challenging time for him."

There was another challenge at Columbus, who promptly loaned him out to farm team the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in North American football's second tier. A short spell there made him still more determined to succeed, and in 2017, he won the confidence of then-Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, who made him his number one.

"It just clicked"

"We were in Charleston and on Friday night Gregg called me to his room and we just had a five-minute conversation and he told me that the coaching staff and the players have confidence in me and they trust me and they just want me to go out there and play," recalled Steffen of the Crew's 2017 pre-season tour.

"When I heard that, I had a really good tournament in Charleston and I think it just clicked there and the confidence just kept growing."

Steffen was named the MLS' best goalkeeper in 2018 for his displays with Columbus Crew. - 2017 Getty Images

After a five-star penalty shoot-out performance in the play-offs against Atlanta United that year, he repeated the feat against Rooney's DC United - parrying one of the ex-Manchester United and England forward's spot-kicks - and earned himself a place in the MLS All-Star Game.

"He has everything"

That is when Guardiola and City took an interest. "My agent called me and said they were looking and I was in awe," said Steffen. "I was like, 'What?' It’s crazy."

Not that the English champions thought they were mad in making the deal, the biggest yet for an MLS 'keeper. "Zack Steffen is a modern goalkeeper who has everything," said Fortuna's sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel, a former professional goalkeeper himself.

"He's technically good, strong in one-on-ones and a great footballer. It's not without reason that Manchester City have decided to give him a long-term contract."

Those reasons were abundantly clear on Matchday 1 when Steffen was named Man of the Matchday after Düsseldorf's 3-1 triumph at Werder Bremen, whose coach, Florian Kohfeldt, lamented his side had "come up against a fantastic goalkeeper."

Steak dinner or beer

Kohfeldt can feel all the more hard done by as Steffen, nicknamed 'Baby Howard' by US media after former USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard, never had ambitions of being between the posts at all.

A free-scoring defender in his local U10 team, Steffen only picked up the gloves when the usual goalkeeper failed to turn up for a game one day.

"We joke and we tell him all the time that he owes the other goalie who didn't show up for the tournament," Stephanie explained. "Zack owes him a case of beer or a steak dinner or something."

Zack Steffen kept his first Bundesliga clean sheet in Fortuna Düsseldorf's Matchday 8 win over Mainz. - 2019 Getty Images

An important milestone

Following up on his Bundesliga debut success, Steffen continued to impress between the posts for Düsseldorf, recording a league-high 37 saves by Matchday 8. However, Fortuna struggled to build upon the solid foundations Steffen laid down and found themselves at the lower end of the league table.

When fellow Rhinelanders Mainz came to town on Matchday 8, Fortuna knew that a win would give them valuable breathing space above the relegation places. The visitors may have bossed possession in the early stages of that match, but Steffen rose to the occasion, proved equal to everything they threw at him, and recorded his first-ever Bundesliga shut-out.

Speaking after the match, Steffen was humble and gave credit to his teammates. “[The shut-out] feels great," he said, "I thought the guys in front of me did a really good job; I didn't have to do much today. It was a hard-fought battle for 90 minutes and we were focused."

It seems that Zack Steffen has found a home away from home and is surrounded by a group of teammates ready to help him on his journey towards becoming the best 'keeper he can be.