Zack Steffen: ‘I was shocked, I was sad, I was angry, I was heartbroken’

The Riverside Stadium at MiddlesbroughSaturday: Just five minutes after the final whistle in Middlesbrough’s 2-1 win over Town of Luton in the Championship, Zack Steffen walked down a hallway to a small office adjacent to the dressing room of the house.

Steffen had taken off his jersey but was still in the rest of his kit. Middlesbrough’s winning goal had come in injury time and the noise of both groups of players was still in the air. It was game day.

But Steffen was there to talk about something else – the world Cup. On November 9, Steffen had been big news, but not in the way the 27-year-old had envisioned him. His name was the one missing from Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT team; there were others, but Steffen was the shock omission.

Now, in this little anonymous piece, he describes how he learned about it the day before, how it affected him, and what it means for his today and his tomorrows. And Steffen to conclude: “I was shocked, I was sad, I was angry, I was heartbroken.”

He also says, “Yeah, I’d like to play again.”

If there is bitterness underlying his quiet responses, it is well hidden. However, it’s impossible to hide the angst of a goalkeeper who many expected not just to be in Berhalter’s squad, but in his starting XI in Qatar. “It hurt,” Steffen says.

On November 8, Middlesbrough were playing away for Blackpool in the second tier of English football, their fourth game in 12 days under new head coach Michael Carrick. The team was at the team hotel to rest in the afternoon. After a short sleep, Steffen saw a text message on his phone. It was from Berhalter.

Zack Steffen’s mental health forced him to miss a camp (Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Steffen called Berhalter, as requested. The pair go back a few years, to days together at Columbus Crew – when Steffen was MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2018, Berhalter was his head coach. Steffen had been in American camps under Jurgen Klinsmann, but he was seen as Berhalter’s go-to keeper.

In March, Steffen played the key World Cup matches that sealed qualification for Qatarhaving also started in major matches last November, such as the 2-0 win over Mexico in Cincinnati. It seemed a certainty for the team of 26 finalists; in March it was Arsenalit is Matt Turner who appeared to be America’s No. 2. But Berhalter had news for everyone.

“It’s between him and me,” Steffen said of that phone call. “We had a 10, 15 minute conversation. I was shocked, I was angry. He said he wouldn’t take me on the list.

Steffen’s answers are brief, sometimes hesitant. His tone is phlegmatic – “That’s how it goes sometimes, that’s life, there are ups and downs and unexpected turns” – but November 2022 will clearly stick with him in an unforeseen way more early this year. No later than the end of October, Athleticism had gone to interview him at the Middlesbrough training ground and he was looking forward to the World Cup. He said it would be “cool” to meet Englandit is Manchester City players – Steffen is on loan from City.

“Obviously it was a blow,” he adds, “I was really heartbroken and it takes time to get over it.

“Now that it’s been a while and I’ve reflected, that’s in the past. I’m moving on. I’m just using it as motivation.

To another question, he replies: “As I say, that’s how life goes, that’s how football goes. There are only 26 players who can go there. It’s just like that.

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And to another: “I was shocked, I was sad, I was mad, I was heartbroken. I had many feelings, different feelings. At the same time, I believe that God has a plan for me, for all of us. I trust him. I walk in faith with him.

Things may have started to change when Steffen sat out American games in June. He was then not included in the September World Cup warm-up friendlies.

Here he reveals why:

“It was by my choice.

“I was…I decided to leave the camp because I had mental health issues in May and June. That’s why I missed it. I had missed being home with my family.

“He’s the coach and he makes the decisions. So, yeah, I was there in March and April…he made up his mind.

Had mental health ever been an issue for him?

“It was really the first time with that, and with them. They were understanding, they didn’t want me to be…they wanted me to be the healthy Zack Steffen.

Steffen in action for Middlesbrough (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

That night in Blackpool, he put aside his conversation with Berhalter, walked out and kept his clean sheet. Carrick praised her professionalism and resilience. Steffen is at Middlesbrough for the rest of the season; he remains under contract with City until the summer of 2025. In club, his career looks solid.

Still, November 2022 will sting for a long time.

“It hurts,” he says, “I try to be understanding and see both sides of everything, but it was hard the last month to deal with that.”

Middlesbrough, supportive and caring, gave him time to return home to Philadelphia to be with his family while the club’s season was interrupted for the World Cup game. Was he able to see USMNT games during the tournament?

“Yes, I was able to watch the matches. It was not easy. But I still wanted to support them, see them do their best, prove the world wrong – that we can play and are a force to be reckoned with.

“It was difficult to do that, but we are only in the World Cup every four years.”

Was he in contact with anyone?

“No, I was just going to let them do their thing.”

One person Steffen has spoken to is his Luton counterpart Ethan Horvath. Horvath went to Qatar as part of the USA team and the coincidence of the league fixture list brought the two men together in midfield at the end of Saturday’s game, two USA goalkeepers locked together in a fog freezing in the northeast of England.

It was quite a scene. Middlesbrough’s win lifted them to 12th in the table, three points clear of the promotion play-offs after a surprisingly slow start to the season. Perhaps this will signal the restart of Steffen’s USMNT trip. He confirms that he wants it to continue.

“It was good to see him,” Steffen says of Horvath. “We have a great camaraderie. The boys in this camp, in the team, are just amazing. I hope this is not the end. I would like to play on it. We will see. All I can do is move on, eat it, and use it as motivation and work to get to the next camp.

There is always 2026, the next World Cup, a tournament with which the United States will co-host Canada and Mexico.

“Yeah,” he said with a smile. “I will be 31 then. That’s the point.

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(Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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