The Crew goalkeeper's impending exit is a low-key crisis, but he ain't gone yet
A soccer goal is 24 feet wide and 8 feet high. Stand inside one during gameplay and you'll discover it's a startlingly big space to protect. Behold an opponent shooting a dead ball from 12 yards away, with no defenders pursuing him, and you'll comprehend the futility of your finite existence in a new way.
A penalty kick is not a guaranteed goal, but it's close. Depending on your source, penalties are converted about 75 to 80 percent of the time at the professional level. Any competent shooter is at an advantage. Goalkeepers can only guess.
Few fan experiences are more nerve-racking than watching an opponent step up for a penalty. But with Zack Steffen in net, it's different. The fear is tempered by hope.
The 6-foot-3-inch Pennsylvanian has stopped five of the 14 penalties he's faced during his tenure with Columbus Crew SC. The past two seasons, Columbus has advanced in the playoffs largely thanks to Steffen's dominating shootout performances. Steffen, 23, has parried away shots by global legends Wayne Rooney and David Villa. He's altered the psychological balance of power.
He did it again on a recent Saturday. Columbus was leading the New England Revolution 1-0 on the road when Gaston Sauro pushed down Wilfried Zahibo in the box in the 57th minute. Diego Fagundez sent the ball hurtling toward the bottom left corner of the net, but Steffen dove to punch it safely clear of the goalline.
Steffen does more than stop PKs. Later, in the waning minutes of stoppage time, he launched a phenomenally accurate half-field pass to Hector Jimenez, who fed Gyasi Zardes for his second goal of the match, completing the Crew's first win of 2019. Zardes was rightfully named to the MLS Team of the Week, but Steffen was the match's clear MVP.
Such excellence is typical for the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and heir apparent to retiring U.S. national team fixture Tim Howard — which is why he'll depart in July for English Premier League defending champions Manchester City.
City paid the Crew $7.5 million for Steffen, a price that could increase to $10 million depending on his performance. It's a good move for Steffen, for U.S. Soccer and for MLS. Even if he rides the bench or is loaned to a different club, Europe is a necessary challenge. And Steffen starting for the best team in the world's best league is not unthinkable.
Shipping off Steffen brings money and prestige to Columbus, too. Yet for a team that scored just 43 goals last season, that doesn't yet embody Coach Caleb Porter's powerhouse attacking vision, it also incites dread: How will the Crew ever replace him?
Columbus has a few months to figure that out. Maybe by July they'll use that fat transfer check to acquire another elite goalkeeper. Until then, Columbus fans should savor the chance to watch a superstar bordering on superhuman. Your next chance is against Dallas on Saturday, March 16; kickoff is at 2 p.m. at Mapfre Stadium.