Now with qualifying for the 2022 World Cup about to start, a straightforward situation has grown complex.
Steffen, a member of Manchester City’s Premier League championship last season, remains the front-runner, but after an illuminating summer, all three candidates arrived in national team camp this week with a case for playing time in the first set of qualifiers.
U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter was reticent about his plans for Thursday’s opener in El Salvador, as well as Sunday’s match against Canada in Nashville and next Wednesday’s visit to Honduras. For consistency purposes, coaches do not usually change goalkeepers, but with a busy schedule and three capable starters, Berhalter might alternate.
“We are comfortable with our goalkeeping pool,” he said. “Overall, the goalkeeper position is in a good spot and we’ll have to make a decision on Thursday who is going to play.”
For more than 30 years, goalkeeping has been a U.S. strength, featuring Tony Meola, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard, among others. Steffen, 26, is the natural successor after joining Manchester City in 2019 and sliding into the U.S. top spot after Howard’s international retirement three years ago.
He has competition, though. Horvath, 26, moved this summer to Nottingham Forest in England’s second tier after four years in Belgium, and Turner, 27, has continued his late bloom with the New England Revolution to become MLS’s best keeper.
“I see myself as the number one,” Steffen said. “It’s my spot to lose. People might see it differently. There are a lot of games to play and a lot to prove individually. I am trying to get better and push these guys and have them push me.”
The timing of the qualifiers has added another wrinkle. While Steffen and Horvath are early in their club seasons and not playing regularly, Turner is deep into an MLS campaign in which he almost always starts. Last week, he was voted MVP of the All-Star Game after stopping two shots in a shootout.
Turner is also fresh off being voted the top keeper at the Concacaf Gold Cup, a six-game stretch in which he and an inexperienced U.S. squad conceded one goal (on a penalty kick).
Steffen, a former University of Maryland standout, has made 23 national team appearances; Horvath and Turner, seven apiece.
Turner made his international debut seven months ago; he had never played for a youth national team, either. Berhalter’s decision to rest his European-based regulars for the Gold Cup and offer opportunities to an MLS-heavy roster provided a high-stakes forum for Turner.
Veterans Brad Guzan and Sean Johnson were available on the bench, but Turner did not flinch.
“I feel like I’ve put myself in a pretty good position to challenge for minutes” in the qualifiers, said Turner, a New Jersey native who, after starring at Fairfield University, earned a free agent contract with the Revolution. “Gregg will look at how we train and how things go while we are here, but he is also going to think about time guys have spent on the field for their club and the national team.”
Steffen was the starter in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and final in June, but when he suffered a bone bruise in his left knee during the second half of the latter game, Horvath entered. With the Americans leading 3-2 in extra time, Horvath made a sensational save on Andrés Guardado’s penalty kick.
Following that tournament, Horvath moved to England on a free transfer, leaving behind a backup job at Club Brugge. He has remained in that role through five league matches at Nottingham Forest but started two League Cup games.
“Nottingham was the best opportunity for me to play — not right away but eventually take over,” said the Colorado native, who left for Europe after high school and launched his career in Norway. “It’s about staying patient and every day showing the coaches what I can bring. In the two games, I’ve shown that.”
At Manchester City, Steffen continues to back up Brazil’s Ederson, one of the world’s best keepers. The exception was the Community Shield match Aug. 7 against Leicester City at Wembley Stadium, a traditional kickoff event between the reigning Premier League and FA Cup champions.
Steffen is expected to start other nonleague matches, as he did last season (10 combined appearances in the League Cup and FA Cup, the former ending with a championship).
While Steffen and Horvath have crossed paths in U.S. camps for years, they are working with Turner for the first time. Steffen and Turner faced one another in MLS in 2018 (Steffen was with the Columbus Crew), but aside from social media connections, they had not interacted until this week.
“I met Ethan for the first time” Monday morning before practice, Turner said with a laugh.
Assessing the fight for playing time over the 14-game, seven-month qualifying calendar, Turner said: “It’s really competitive, and the way I see it, it’s exciting. It’s exciting to have people talking about U.S. goalkeepers again and, on top of that, to see it’s not a definite answer on who is going to play.”