Zack Steffen was nervous. The goalkeeper has welcomed challengers smashing soccer balls at him for years, but nothing compared to this.
ABOVE: Goalkeeper Zack Steffen shouts commands during the Terps’ 5-2 win over Hartwick on Oct. 28, 2014 at Ludwig Field.
He hadn’t been this anxious when he earned a call-up to the U.S. U-14 Boys’ National Team as a 13-year-old. Or when he manned the goal in front of friends and family for the Terrapins men’s soccer team at the 2013 College Cup in Chester, Pennsylvania. Or when he competed for the U-20 national team this summer and was compared to senior team star Tim Howard.
Steffen, an enthusiastic leader, relishes game pressure. But about three weeks ago, Steffen felt uneasy sitting in a chair at The Tattooery in College Park. There wasn’t a ball zooming at his face, but a needle aimed at his rib cage.
“I was sweating a lot,” Steffen said. “I was really nervous.”
Steffen instructed the tattoo artist to ink him with the phrase “forever my family” along with four words — trust, passion, humility, heart — in honor of each of his four younger siblings. The art is inscribed in German, an ode to his mother’s heritage.
“I’ll always have a place in my heart for my family,” said Steffen, whose Terps are on a six-game winning streak and host Ohio State on Saturday.
Though he earned 2013 NCAA Championship Most Valuable Defensive Player and starred for FC Delco as a Philadelphia Union homegrown prospect during high school, Steffen remains grounded by his family and his close friends. In fact, his mom, Stefanie Steffen said fans often approach her and say, “Zack is so good, but he’s so humble and he’s so easy to root for.”
That’s not an easy trait for a 19-year-old to have when he’s been called “Baby Tim Howard.”
Zack Steffen poses in his soccer uniform as a second-grader. (Photo courtesy of Stefanie Steffen)
His ascent to hyped goalkeeping prospect began in the mid-2000s, when Steffen’s U-10 team’s regular goalkeeper didn’t show up for a Saturday morning game.
Steffen played defender growing up and led his team in scoring. But when his squad suddenly needed someone to man the goal, Steffen volunteered.
“We joke and we tell him all the time that he owes the other goalie who didn’t show up for the tournament,” Stefanie Steffen said. “Zack owes him a case of beer or a steak dinner or something.”
He’s had a passion for playing between the posts ever since.
Everyone has heard the hackneyed story: Child loves sports; child plays sports outside; child breaks neighbor’s windows playing sports.
Steffen’s neighbors didn’t have that problem as the budding star goalkeeper grew into a teenager.
His home in Downingtown is close to United Sports, a 127,000 square-foot soccer complex featuring 11 outdoor fields and two indoor turf fields. So when Steffen had downtime between school and practice with FC Delco, the club team he played with from age 13 to 18, he’d go to the complex with friends.
“When he wasn’t in school, he’d come home and wait for his buddies, then walk the five-minute walk across the street, and they’d just play hours of soccer,” Stefanie Steffen said. “He loves the sport; he loves the camaraderie, the teamwork.”
FC Delco head coach Alan Mezger added: “The other coach would say [Steffen] is always over there. He’s always over there. Who knows, he might’ve set up a trash can at midfield and tried to hit it with a drop kick.”
Dylan Hurley, a Penn midfielder, lived nearby and often joined Steffen. When there weren’t enough people to stage a pickup game, the two played by themselves for hours at a time.
With Hurley, Steffen could escape the outside noise. He could escape the expectations. The hype. No comparisons to elite goalkeepers, no scouts to impress. Just the sound of the ball rolling across the turf between friends.
“It’s just fun to get up there,” Steffen said, “and get away from everything.”
Before Steffen got invited to play with the national team as a 13-year-old, soccer was merely an activity. But after the call-up, his relationship with the game changed.
“It was not a normal childhood anymore,” Stefanie Steffen said. “He’s had to mature a lot quicker than he would’ve otherwise.”
Playing with the national team meant traveling around the globe. But while Steffen appreciated the chance to play at a high level, he yearned to spend time with his friends.
“In many ways, Zack has just always wanted to be a normal guy, hang out with his buddies,” Stefanie Steffen said. “He’s missed Thanksgiving, Easter and all these holidays, birthdays through the years, and just has kind of rolled with it.”
After spending the eighth, ninth and 10th grade at Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Steffen transferred to Downingtown West, the public high school in his town, so he could play with his friends. The competition was less intense, but Steffen didn’t care.
“It was the best two years of my life,” Steffen said. “It was a lot of fun playing with them and playing underneath the lights in front of all my other peers and student friends.”
Another reason he switched to public school was so he could be around his sisters. As the oldest of five siblings, Steffen embraces his big-brother role. He’s quick to offer advice and encouragement, just as he shouts instructions to Terps defenders from in goal.
One of his younger sisters, Alexis, was undecided about playing soccer in college. Steffen encouraged her to partake in the sport by mentioning all of the benefits he’s received from college athletics.
And though he’s in College Park helming the Terps defense now and spends summers competing across the world, Steffen keeps in touch with his family. He’s in a group chat with his two sisters, and his mother often sends him photographs of his siblings.
“He particularly enjoys the pictures of his younger brothers,” Stefanie Steffen said. “Our 3-year-old was twerking to a song on the radio, and he got a kick out of that photo.”
After high school graduation, Steffen’s friends made the trek from Pennsylvania to a New Jersey beach for Senior Week. With high school behind them, they enjoyed newfound freedom and warm weather.
But Steffen wasn’t there. He wasn’t even in the country. Two days after graduation, he boarded a plane and traveled more than 5,000 miles to Turkey to join the U.S. national team in the U-20 World Cup. Though he was only 17 at the time, the coaching staff wanted Steffen to experience the high-level competition, though he stayed on the bench.
Steffen said he would have liked to spend the week with his lifelong friends, but the lure of competing on the grand stage was too enticing.
Besides, he needs all the experience he can get if he hopes to replicate the success of Howard, who he said has been “my idol since I began playing goalie.”
“Without soccer, thinking what I would do in my life, I have no idea,” Steffen said. “And I thought about that a couple times. I have no idea.”
ABOVE: Terrapins men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski talks about Zack Steffen’s time with the team.
Steffen’s reaped the benefits of putting so much time into the game. In addition to his national-team duties, he helped the Philadelphia Union Academy team to a U-17 championship in 2012.
Stefanie Steffen said a few professional organizations inquired about her son’s status after high school. Many believed he already possessed the skill set and poise required of a professional goalkeeper.
But Steffen hardly considered turning professional immediately. During his sophomore year of high school, Steffen and his mother visited College Park. After touring the campus and facilities, they joined coach Sasho Cirovski in his office.
“[Steffen], if you come here, your freshman year the College Cup is in Philadelphia, at PPL Park,” Cirovski recalled saying. “You could be playing in the College Cup in Philadelphia in three years, in front of your hometown, with your family and friends there.”
Stefanie Steffen said: “And then all of a sudden, we were there.”
On Dec 12. 2013, Steffen walked on the pitch at an empty PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union. He had played on the field once with the Union’s academy team in a game against Everton Football Club’s U-21 team.
The next day, he made five saves to propel the Terps to a 2-1 victory over Virginia in the College Cup semifinal in front of scores of his friends and family. Even the team’s 2-1 loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA final two days later didn’t dull the moment’s impact on the Terps netminder.
“That was a dream come true,” Steffen said.
When Steffen was in the seventh grade, he was assigned to write a paper on a public figure who had overcome significant obstacles to attain success. Steffen chose his role model, Howard, who has Tourette’s syndrome and starred on the national team.
Zack Steffen stands with teammates on the U-14 U.S. boys' national soccer team. (Photo courtesy Stefanie Steffens)
Fast forward to this summer: Howard became a national icon after his stellar performance in the World Cup in Rio De Janeiro this summer inspired countless memes that dominated social media.
Steffen and the U-20 team played in an international tournament over the summer, too. During a game against Australia, Steffen made an impressive save, prompting the American fans to chant, “Baby Tim Howard.”
As Steffen matures, more and more people are beginning to compare him to Howard.
“I don’t want to jinx him [by] saying out loud, but he has the potential,” said Leighton Walters, a member of the U.S. National Soccer Coaches Association. “The comparisons that are beginning to happen with him, I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Steffen’s role on the national team isn’t the only thing that’s unclear; he hasn’t decided on his professional future yet, either. If he decides to enter Major League Soccer, the Union would have the first opportunity to sign its homegrown player.
But in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, the Union selected former Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake with the first overall pick. Even further, the franchise signed Algerian goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi in July. Rais and Blake have served as backups behind former Terps goalkeeper Zac MacMath this year.
When the Union selected Blake, he became the first goalkeeper ever be taken with the first overall pick in the draft.
“It’s hard to know exactly what an organization is thinking when they do something like that,” TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Travis Clark said. “They must not have thought that Steffen would eventually have the desire to sign with the MLS.”
Rumors suggest Steffen might, like Howard, aim to play in Europe. Steffen maintains that his focus is on this season and helping his teammates to a third straight College Cup appearance. He’ll leave the speculation to everyone else, as he always has.
“I would love to see [Steffen] in a Champions League game,” Walters said. “How cool would that be?”
(Alexander Jonesi/The Diamondback)
Before every Terps game, Stefanie Steffen sends her son a good-luck text. It’s that type of support that’s allowed Zack Steffen to stay focused on his day-to-day tasks despite all the gossip surrounding his future.
ABOVE: Goaltender Zack Steffen high-fives fans after his shutout as Maryland beats Penn State, 4-0, on October 12, 2014, at Ludwig Field in College Park, Maryland.
“We all know that we haven’t accomplished anything,” Steffen said. “We’re just playing every game like it’s a playoff game.”
Steffen has recorded six shutouts this year and has anchored the team’s defense during its six-game winning streak. He didn’t flounder under pressure when the Terps played then-No. 3 Penn State or then-No. 5 Indiana, allowing just one goal over both games while stopping five shots in two victories.
Zack Steffen relaxes while other Terps stretch prior to the team's match against Hartwick on Oct. 28, 2014, at Ludwig Field. (Christian Jenkins/The Diamondback)
Standing between the posts, Steffen controls the complexion of the game. Ludwig Field attendance has been uncharacteristically low this year, so Steffen’s shouts from goal are audible throughout the complex. Even when the Terps are on offense, Steffen can be heard offering instructions to his teammates.
But in postgame interviews, Steffen is soft-spoken and polite. He gives intelligent, thoughtful answers to reporters, and he never boasts.
While Steffen is cognizant of his prominent place in the national soccer scene, he never indulges in the hype. That’s why he left private school to play high school ball with his friends. That’s why he inked his body in honor of his family.
And it’s a practice he’ll continue as he aims to emulate the success of one of American soccer’s most recognizable figures.
“He doesn’t let you know how great he is,” Mezger said. “It’s great that people call him a young Tim Howard, but I don’t want to put that pressure on him. And I know it won’t be a factor because Zack does things under a controlled mind.”
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