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Steffen staying at Man City: Will new contract help or hurt USMNT goalkeeper's World Cup hopes?

11:10 pm AEDT 16/11/21
Zack Steffen
The American sees less game-time than he would like at the Eithad, so why has he decided to sign a contract extension?

With just over a year to go until the start of the World Cup, Zack Steffen has made a big decision over his future.

The United States men's national team goalkeeper has opted to continue as the deputy to Ederson at Manchester City, after signing a four-year contract extension at the Etihad Stadium.

Steffen has made it clear that he is determined to fight for the No.1 jersey but the reality is that it would take a huge dip in form for Ederson to lose his place after fitting perfectly into Pep Guardiola’s plans since his arrival in the summer of 2017.

The 26-year-old American's only two Premier League appearances have only come due to coronavirus issues – when Ederson had to self-isolate ahead of a trip to Chelsea last December and, more recently, when he had to fly straight to Belgium after an international in a red-list country.

Steffen has made two appearances in the Carabao Cup and played in the Community Shield curtain-raiser this season but, barring an injury, his next appearance might not be until the FA Cup third round in January.

A victory in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain next week would see City guaranteed top spot in Group A and allow Ederson to sit out the trip to RB Leipzig on the final matchday, but opportunities remain scarce for Steffen.

A lack of game-time would appear to present a problem to his hopes of being the USMNT's first-choice shot-stopper for Qatar 2022.

New England Revolution's Matt Turner has started 12 of the last 14 internationals and was the Golden Gloves winner in his country’s Gold Cup triumph in August, while there is also competition from Sean Johnson, of City’s sister club New York City FC.

However, USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter has selected Steffen for the recent crucial World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico, and is expected to do so again in Tuesday’s clash with Jamaica.

“I think when you look at the choice of Zack to play in the Mexico game, you can infer that he's ahead of Matt,” Berhalter said ahead of the game in Kingston.

“But what I'd say is that it's also up to Zack to keep his form. We're not hesitant to change goalkeepers. We know that the competition is really tight and they're pushing each other, and I think that's a good thing.”

Berhalter's backing is a huge and timely vote of confidence in Steffen, particularly with qualification for the World Cup not certain.

USMNT currently sit top of their CONCACAF group at the halfway stage, although they are only three points ahead of Panama, who, as it stands, would have to negotiate an inter-confederation play-off in order to make it to Qatar 2022.

Injuries and illness have meant that Steffen and Turner have rarely been available at the same time but now that they are, the City keeper has been given the nod.

“It was a difficult decision,” Berhalter added. “It wasn't easy, given how Matt was playing. He played really well in the Gold Cup, letting up one goal, and qualifying, letting up just two goals in five games.

“It was more we're looking at the games and how they're unfolding and we're saying there's a number of possessions that we can be keeping in these games that we're not, and we think Zack is stronger with his feet. So, we made that decision based on that.

“They're two very high-level goalkeepers. There's not much separating them but, in this particular area, which we think it is an area of need, we thought Zack was ahead of Matt, so we made that decision.”

Berhalter and Steffen have a history going back to their days together at Columbus Crew and he made the Pennsylvanian his first-choice goalkeeper when he first took over the USMNT.

He also encouraged Steffen to stay at City after a year-long loan spell in Germany with Fortuna Dusseldorf, in 2019-20.

Berhalter saw Manchester as a high-quality environment where Steffen would not only improve his shot-stopping skills, but also his footballing ability.

While Steffen may be missing out on extended game time, when he plays, the quality of opponents is considerably higher than those faced by his rivals in the USMNT.

The 12 matches he started for City last season included two appearances at Wembley – in a Carabao Cup victory over Aston Villa and an FA Cup defeat to Chelsea – while he also featured in away games at Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and Burnley in the Premier League.

On top of that, every day is spent training and working in a high-pressure environment alongside some of the best players – and one of the best goalkeepers – in the world.

Indeed, Guardiola rates head of goalkeeping Xabi Mancisidor – who initially joined under previous boss Manuel Pellegrini – as the leading expert in his field, and that is an opinion shared by Steffen.

“[Mancisidor] is by far the best coach I’ve ever worked with,” Steffen said after signing his contract extension. “He’s so detailed and looks at everything. I’ve gotten a lot better since working with him."

Sources close to the first team say that Steffen struggled at times in his early weeks and months to get to grips with the demands and expectations at City, but that he has gradually adapted and improved his game since then.

Watching him in recent appearances, he has gone to another level in terms of his comfort on the ball to receive and play passes – particularly the right ones.

Away to West Ham for example, he attempted 26 passes, 25 of which were successful. Opposite number Alphonse Areola made one more successful pass but from 10 more attempts.

Steffen is also happy in Manchester and part of a close goalkeeping unit alongside Ederson, popular third-choice Scott Carson and goalkeeping coach Richard Wright.

Steffen could easily move back to Major League Soccer and be playing every week. But, at City, he and his national team coach Berhalter believe he’s in one of the best footballing environments on the planet.

That could be enough to earn him the No.1 jersey for his country, if not his club.