Whippany, N.J. – The last time the USMNT gathered at the New York Red Bulls Training Center was ahead of what would be a disastrous 2-0 World Cup Qualifier loss to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, last September 1, a loss that would play its part in seeing the United States miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
That failure led to a shakeup that saw coach Bruce Arena follow the man he replaced, Jurgen Klinsmann, out the door followed soon enough by U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. It also signaled the end of the international career of at least one icon, with Clint Dempsey’s recent retirement and the ushering in of a youth movement led by interim coach Dave Sarachan.
With an average age of 23 years 241 days, this is a young group. It is also a new group, with just three of the squad that succumbed so meekly to the Ticos last September returning to the Garden State for Friday night’s friendly versus Brazil at MetLife Stadium.
Of the three, only Paul Arriola saw action, entering the fray in the 87th minute. Eric Lichaj and Kellyn Acosta did not see any action last September versus Costa Rica.
Tim Howard was in goal that night and neither Howard nor fellow veteran and former USMNT number one Brad Guzan was called into this squad, prompting me to ask presumptive topman Zack Steffen if those absences surprised him.
Standing outside of the practice field at the Red Bulls’ facility, the 23-year-old Columbus Crew keeper paused a moment before admitting, “I was a little surprised Brad wasn’t, for some experience, maybe.”
Steffen continued by noting the transitional nature of the National Team at this juncture. “At the same time it’s a fresh start and everybody has a chance to step in and play their game and showcase their skills.”
Steffen has been showcasing his considerable skills since the Americans returned to the field of play in a series of friendlies following a prolonged period of wound licking and soul-searching.
In seven friendlies since the awful night in Trinidad and Tobago that saw the Americans miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986 Steffen has emerged as the most likely heir to the USMNT goalkeeper legacy that runs from Tony Meola to Kasey Keller, to Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, and Brad Guzan, although Guzan may be back in the picture when U.S. Soccer General Manager Earnie Stewart selects a permanent coach.
Steffen figures to see the bulk of the time in this two-game set against Brazil on Friday and Mexico in Nashville next Tuesday, having outperformed Ethan Horvath, Alex Bono, and Bill Hamid in club and international competition in recent months.
Steffen was particularly impressive in a 1-1 draw versus a full strength French team back in June, shortly before Les Bleus went on to win the World Cup in Russia.
Performances like that, as well as his consistent fine play with the Crew, were bound to attract interest and Steffen came close to a return to Europe with English Championship side Bristol City earlier this summer, having begun his professional career with German club Freiburg.
How close? I asked the former Maryland Terrapin. “It was possible it was going to happen,” Steffen said, adding opaquely, “for certain reasons it didn’t happen.”
The clamor did not seem to phase the keeper. “No, not at all,” Steffen told GotSoccer. “I think the right thing will come and it will all fall into place how it should be.”
For now, the right thing for the USMNT seems to be Zack Steffen between the posts, especially without a veteran in camp. I asked Steffen if the absence of Guzan and/or Howard gave him a boost.
“Yeah, I mean it’s obviously in the back of my head but I’m happy to be here with the group, to be here with such a good group.”
Steffen sounded intent on holding on to that number one job, and expressed confidence in the team’s current direction, adding “we’re really young, so it’s fun,” and Steffen said confidently, “it feels like our team.”