The meltdown of USMNT’s Zack Steffen at Wembley is the latest in a series of red flags


Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen reacts after a mistake resulted in Liverpool's Sadio Mane scoring a goal during the Emirates FA Cup semi-final match at Wembley Stadium.

Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen reacts after a mistake resulted in Liverpool’s Sadio Mane scoring a goal during the Emirates FA Cup semi-final match at Wembley Stadium.
picture: Getty Images

Panic and responsiveness to the USMNT is now part of the deal. Maybe it’s a sign that we’re growing up. Hell, three weeks ago the USA qualified for next fall’s World Cup (and got something of a favorable draw), Christian Pulisic was a regular starting XIy for Chelsea – also looked good – and Gio Reyna was healthy.

Fast forward to now: Pulisic can’t crack the Chelsea line-up, Reyna is injured again, Weston McKennie is still on the shelf. The clouds are certainly darker given that this is a national team that only plays every few months and is still relatively thin compared to the real powers. It doesn’t take much to uncover what looks like a sobering and worrying hole in the whole prospect.

Oh yes, this also happened:

That’s USA No. 1 goalkeeper Zack Steffen at Wembley in an FA Cup semi-final against Man City’s biggest rivals Liverpool suddenly seeing alien ships on the horizon or having a sour flashback or both with Sadio Mane, just one of the best forwards in the world, slammed into him like a heat-seeking missile. It’s the biggest goalkeeping mistake this season, probably ever. There were some arguments Liverpool had First and third party Goals also came from Steffen’s mistakes, but that’s debatable, since both were pretty perfect shots into corners. This one, however, would headline a separate section of a goalkeeping book entitled ‘Historical Cockups’.

It didn’t help that it was in full view of England, who will be watching next Black Friday when the USA take on England in their second World Cup game. Not that US fans needed much help to panic about it, but there’s no force of evil that pokes fun at it more than the UK press. Doubly so when it comes to a Yank. USA already had a problem at the other end of the field, not having a real, trustworthy No. 9 forward who can score regularly.

And now the fear is they’re dodgy between the posts. And the fear isn’t that Steffen and Matt Turner aren’t good players. They couldn’t be complete donkeys and end up at Manchester City or Arsenal. The fear is that they won’t play at all.

Steffen’s mistake is certainly at least partly a product of rust. A goaltender who plays week after week has far better feel and touch and comes out of it, if only to put the ball into orbit. But Steffen doesn’t play. He is City’s No. 2 behind Ederson and only gets a cup game occasionally. Saturday was just his third start for City in three months. Throw in last month’s three US qualifiers and that’s still only six games in three months. It’s incredibly nice of Pep Guardiola to remain loyal to Steffen as cup keeper so that he can get out at all. But there’s a gear shift to go from first-round ties to a semi-final against a full-strength Liverpool. Steffen wasn’t up to it. Whether that’s simply because he’s gone stale on the bench or he’s just not that good… we won’t know until (or if) Steffen goes on loan somewhere and can play regularly next year.

And Turner will find himself in the same situation in the summer. He was injured and hasn’t played the full season in MLS and he won’t get that many games before his contract with Arsenal comes into force and he moves to north London. But he won’t play more than the odd cup game either, as Aaron Ramdale is the Gunners’ No. 1. It’s not uncommon for a team like Arsenal to sign someone like Turner and then immediately send him on loan. But that’s usually reserved for players who are seen as one for the future. Turner is approaching his 28th birthday. Bernd Leno, Arsenal’s current backup, is likely to leave after this season to play regularly himself. Arsenal clearly see Turner as a viable replacement.

So can the USA take part in the World Cup if their top two goalies are mostly on the bench? The options behind these two won’t calm a US fan’s stomach acid. Ethan Horvath has not played for Nottingham Forest for a month and has just six starts a year. In addition, there are players who have either never been called up or have been used extremely sparingly.

Sean Johnson is the veteran option but has never impressed anyone. Gregg Berhalter has been vocal about reaching out to Seattle’s Sebastien Frei and he’s been in brilliant form so far this year but has never played a game for the national team. Are you really going to throw him in a World Cup? The wild card is Gabby Slonina, who has nowhere to buy cigarettes legally but plays for Chicago and excels (2nd best goals vs expected goals vs difference in MLS). Can you really throw a teenager in that cauldron?

A bug shouldn’t send anyone into orbit with fear and anxiety, but that’s what happens when you have real expectations. And at a World Cup, one mistake can turn a whole tournament around. Give away a stupid goal against Iran, a game the US needs to win, and you’re up against it. The US has all this promise between the boxes. They had serious concerns about one of the sharp ends of the field and were waiting for Ricardo Pepi to ever score again. Now both ends seem dangerous.

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