NCAA men’s soccer: Maryland’s Zack Steffen at the center of attention at College Cup

December 11, 2013

When the NCAA men’s soccer semifinals commence Friday night in suburban Philadelphia, Maryland’s Zack Steffen will hold the attention of several groups.

Family and friends from Downingtown, Pa., will make the 40-minute drive to Chester and bundle up at PPL Park to watch their favorite goalkeeper. Terrapins supporters, hungry for a third NCAA title in nine seasons, will count on Steffen’s reflexes to thwart Virginia in the semifinals. U.S. youth national team observers will assess his development since last seeing him in the summer.

And the MLS club housed at PPL, the Philadelphia Union, will continue projecting when he will man the nets at its picturesque riverside venue.

Steffen is among American soccer’s premier goalkeeping prospects, and although just a freshman, he is on a pathway to play for the Union. Through his long association with the club’s youth academy, Steffen is, in essence, a Union prospect honing his skills in college for a few seasons.

When he does decide to turn pro, whether in months or years, he is likely to sidestep the MLS draft and accept a homegrown contract offer from the Union. MLS encourages teams to develop their own talent and, as a reward, permits them to offer contracts without subjecting those players to the draft.

“I’m not thinking about the future right now — my focus is on Maryland,” Steffen said. “I am sticking to the process and seeing where it leads me.”

The process has led him to the College Cup, Maryland’s second consecutive trip after it fell to Georgetown in last year’s semifinal. He has played every minute of 24 matches, and after a difficult start to the season, he has lowered his goals-against average to 1.11 and recorded eight shutouts.

Steffen rescued Maryland in the round of 16, making two tremendous saves in the second half of a 1-0 victory over UC Irvine.

“He has tremendous potential,” Terrapins Coach Sasho Cirovski said, “and he is starting to show it.”

Although Steffen committed to Maryland early in his junior year of high school, turning down Virginia, North Carolina and Penn State, the idea of skipping college and going pro was an option. Several young U.S. players have done the same the past decade, signing during or after high school with an MLS or foreign team.

For Steffen, college was “better for my growth because I knew I was going to play, and for a goalkeeper, you need the repetition of playing all the time,” he said. Had he signed with the Union last summer, he probably would have been limited to low-quality reserve games. (Plus, he said, “my parents are traditional and wanted to get me on the college track.”)

His choice of Maryland was no surprise: Union starting goalkeeper Zac MacMath is a former Terrapin, and goalkeepers coach Rob Vartughian served under Cirovski for seven seasons.

In the Union’s system, Steffen worked closely with Vartughian, trained with the first team and suited up for reserve and youth games. He played against the under-20 squad from Premier League club Everton.

“It’s not a question of if he becomes a pro but when,” Vartughian said. “The reality is, the most important training for a goalkeeper is games. He was not ready to play for us. College provides it.”

Leading to his freshman year, however, Steffen injured his shoulder on assignment with the U-18 and U-20 national teams. Consequently, he was inactive for more than two months. Nonetheless, Cirovski named him the starter.

“We took a risk, throwing him into the fire and knowing he wasn’t going to be at his best but with an eye on the long term,” Cirovski said.

Steffen and the backline struggled: 12 goals conceded as the Terrapins opened with a 1-2-2 record.

“My confidence was a little low,” he said. “I hadn’t played in a while, and that definitely affected my performance. I felt like I wasn’t showing my true self.”

By the end of September, Steffen said he was back in rhythm. And the Terrapins began to find their way. Bolstered by a maturing backline, they have yielded four goals during a current 10-game winning streak and allowed multiple goals twice in the past 17 outings.

Steffen has a fan in a player he may someday supplant: MacMath. The former Terp watched the ACC final on TV last month, and although Steffen was not tested frequently, “you could see the sense of confidence he has now,” MacMath said.

During the match against Virginia, MacMath texted Terrapins goalkeepers coach Brian Rowland on the bench at Maryland SoccerPlex: “Zack’s got some swagger to him!”

In each of Maryland’s past two championship campaigns, a freshman keeper started in net: Chris Seitz in 2005 and MacMath three years later. (Seitz stayed for one more season and was MLS’s fourth overall draft pick in 2007, MacMath for two more and was selected fifth in ’11.)

“I told Zack,” MacMath said, “he has to keep that championship tradition going.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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