Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Zack Steffen would fill the time between his own soccer games by watching English Premier League matches with his stepfather (and early coach), talking over each score and debating what the goalkeeper could have done differently.

These days, it’s Steffen himself getting the chance to guard the goalposts in the world’s most elite competition as part of first-place Manchester City. In January, he became the first Terp to ever start a Premier League game when he stepped in for his club’s regular starter and helped defeat Chelsea 3-1. 

“I feel like I’ve become less nervous and more confident in my abilities,” he said. “It’s surreal, it’s crazy.”

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen during a UMD soccer gameSteffen was one of the most prized soccer prospects in the country when he came to UMD in 2013 and made an immediate impact, leading the Terps to a conference title and the national championship game, and earning Defensive Most Valuable Player at the College Cup. He followed it up with another conference championship and top defensive honors from the Big Ten in 2014 before signing a contract with a team in Germany’s Bundesliga.

“When you first see Zack you immediately know there is something special,” said UMD men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski, who recalled dozens of scouts turning out to see Steffen play when the team toured England in 2014. “He doesn’t overtalk. He knows the game, and he is commanding.”

After stints playing in the Bundesliga and Major League Soccer, Steffen earned a place at one of the most prestigious clubs in the most watched soccer league in the world, and was brought into Manchester City’s first team at the start of the 2020-21 season. He kept Marseille scoreless in a December 3-0 Champions League victory and temporarily took over the starting role for league competition when Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson tested positive for COVID-19. Steffen earned kudos from manager Pep Guardiola, who said that he “solved all the situations he faced brilliantly.”

Those accomplishments have been dampened by the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Steffen said, with the lack of fans, family and friends putting pressure on the players to find their own motivation.

“We’ve got to go out there and be professional,” he said. “You got to stay really tuned in and focused.”

Steffen has already made his mark international competition as well, with 19 appearances for the U.S. senior team and back-to-back saves against eventual World Cup champion France in the dying moments of a 2018 draw that he notes as his most prized feat to date (in addition to a penalty shot denial on legend Wayne Rooney).

One of several young Americans making their mark on European soccer leagues, Steffen is aiming to be the U.S. team’s starting goalkeeper for next year’s World Cup in Qatar. But, not surprisingly for someone who makes a living stopping the next shot, he wants to maintain a day-to-day perspective on building his confidence and leadership abilities on his sport’s brightest stage.

“(Goalkeepers) see all 21 other players back there,” Steffen said. “We have to be a leader and a voice.”