HOBOKEN, N.J. — Through the developmental years, from club soccer in eastern Pennsylvania and two sterling seasons at the University of Maryland to a first pro contract in Germany, Zack Steffen modeled his goalkeeping work after Tim Howard, the longtime U.S. national team starter.
“He was a huge idol,” Steffen, 23, said Tuesday.
As he and a young U.S. squad gathered this week for friendlies against Brazil and Mexico — blockbuster tests in the continuing rehabilitation of a bruised program that missed the World Cup for the first time since 1986 — Steffen is here and Howard is not.
The wheels of succession are turning. And if he stays in form weekly with the Columbus Crew and in these periodic assignments with the national team, Steffen could very well take the long-term reins from Howard.
“The thought of that gives me chills,” he said. “When you look at it from the outside, it’s crazy. When I was young and watching Tim play for U.S. and [English club] Everton, and now that I’m in the fold, it’s a different view and a different feeling. It’s weird, honestly.”
What is not weird are the inevitable generational shift in the U.S. team, including goalkeeper. Howard will turn 40 in March. He remains active with the Colorado Rapids and has not officially retired from international soccer, but after holding the U.S. starting job for most of 10 years and showing age during last year’s World Cup qualifying fiasco, his time is up.
At 33, Brad Guzan, Howard’s primary deputy, remains in the mix. The coaching staff, headed by interim boss Dave Sarachan, knows the Atlanta United starter well and would not hesitate to summon him again.
As a four-year cycle begins, Sarachan wants to continue taking a close look at the rising prospects. In the six friendlies since the qualifying failure, four young keepers have started. Steffen has stood out, most notably in a 1-1 draw at France, days before Les Bleus began a Russian run to the World Cup trophy.
“I wouldn’t categorize it as Brad versus the young guys,” Sarachan said. “I call it a pool of players. If you look at a pecking order of experience, there is Tim and Brad, and then you have a drop-off. Among that pool, we are still ranking and evaluating.”
It is a precipitous drop-off. Howard and Guzan have combined for 179 international appearances. The three candidates for Friday’s match against Brazil in East Rutherford, N.J., and Tuesday’s game against Mexico in Nashville have totaled six: three for Steffen, two for Ethan Horvath (from Belgium’s Club Brugge) and one for Toronto FC’s Alex Bono.
“Brad has his own bucket: We know him, we can count on him,” Sarachan said. “Now, it’s the jockeying with that next group.”
That group also includes Bill Hamid, who was not named to this squad because, Sarachan said, he is still settling into his new job with D.C. United after returning from an unsuccessful move to the Danish league. Rusty from inactivity with Midtjylland, Hamid, 27, did not perform well in a U.S. friendly at Ireland early this summer.
“I don’t want to hold that against him,” Sarachan said. “We have given him some opportunities and we all feel we know him pretty well. He’s now just back with D.C., and with minutes and confidence, he quickly comes back into the conversation” for friendlies against Colombia and Peru next month and England and Italy in November.
Howard is not likely to reenter the conversation. He will go down in history as one of the U.S. program’s all-time greats, following in the footsteps the last 25 years of Tony Meola, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller.
Unlike other U.S. veterans who are on call, Sarachan said he has not spoken to Howard. “At some point, I’m sure we will have a conversation. But I will say right now, Brad is more in the conversation” to rejoin the squad in the near future, perhaps for the Concacaf Gold Cup next summer.
As for Steffen, the opportunity to create distance from the other candidates seems to have arrived. Given his performances against France and for the Crew this season, he is likely to start against third-ranked Brazil, whose roster includes superstar Neymar.
The message from Sarachan and goalkeepers coach Matt Reis is “there’s no number one, two or three right now” on the depth chart, Steffen said. “It’s all about getting together, getting familiar, getting good sessions in and getting better.”
Steffen, though, is the unofficial front-runner. He has been on the rise since leaving German club Freiburg, where he struggled to earn playing time. He signed with Columbus in summer 2016 and won the starting job last year. His exploits in the MLS playoffs raised his profile and earned him the national team call-ups early this year.
This summer, Bristol City in England’s second flight sought to buy him. However, the $3.9 million offer wasn’t enticing enough for the Crew to sell and, even if it had, Steffen would’ve had trouble securing a British work permit. (He doesn’t have enough national team appearances to warrant automatic consideration, which would have forced Bristol to submit an appeal to the government.)
And so he has remained with Columbus, in clear view of the U.S. staff and American fans eager for a fresh start.
“It was pretty serious,” Steffen said of the English interest. “But I’m happy in Columbus and, when I get called in here for the U.S., it’s the ultimate. I’m in a happy place right now.”