Over four months ago, Zack Steffen woke up from a nap to text messages from then-US men’s national team coach Greg Berhalter asking if they could talk. He didn’t quite get rid of the memory of the ensuing call — when he was told he wouldn’t be on the US World Cup team.
“I think about it every day,” Stephen said this week. “It sure hurts. It definitely required a piece of armor.”
Steffen is back with the US team for the first time since that fateful day, and he arrives at camp in top form from Middlesbrough. It was evident during his sitting with half an hour the athlete In a hotel lobby in central Florida, Steffen is well located, but it hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point.
The 27-year-old goalkeeper returned home to Pennsylvania during the World Cup he thought he’d play in. There, his absence from the list was an inevitable topic with friends, family, and acquaintances. He watched American matches with his family – “it was hard”, he said – and then finally returned to his club determined to find a way back to peace.
Stephen said that a deeper connection to his faith was crucial to finding his way out of the disappointment.
“It took a few months to get that salt and bitterness out of my mouth,” Stephen said. “But I absolutely believe that we all have our own paths. And there are some negatives and challenges, and we all have these expectations and desires for our lives, and God has different plans for us on different paths. He helped me get through this more than anything else. And I am grateful to him, to have this. Kind of faith. Because without that, it would have been much more difficult to maneuver those deep waters.”
Stephen’s exclusion from the World Cup squad came as a shock to many who plotted his way into the national team.
The former University of Maryland goalkeeper Berhalter played for the Columbus Crew from 2017-19 before he was sold to Manchester City for a fee of up to $10 million. Steffen started 17 games for the United States from 2019-21. He entered the first camp of the September 2021 World Cup qualifiers as the expected starter in goal but woke up with back spasms the day before the opening match against El Salvador and Matt Turner stepped into the starting role.
However, Steffen seemed to be Berhalter’s favorite keeper. He returned to the starting line-up for the home qualifier against Costa Rica in October, and then started against Mexico at home in November. He was also the first to score in San Jose, Costa Rica when the United States qualified for the World Cup in March 2022.
But when the United States met for matches last June, their penultimate camp before the World Cup, Stephen withdrew from the competition. At the time, it was announced that he was out for “family reasons.” Stephen said this week he called at the last minute because of his mental health at the time.
“The most I will say is that I wasn’t in a good vacuum, I wasn’t in love with myself,” Stephen said. “I wasn’t doing the things I needed to do in order to really be on the field and stay on the field, not treating my body the way it should have been. And I needed to just be with family and take the time to get home.
“We all know life is hard. We all have trauma. I have trauma from growing up that was coming and going that I needed to process and am still processing. And it was a very difficult decision, it was a late decision not to go out to camp, but I knew it was for To have a successful and healthy season this season, I knew I needed to heal those traumas. That’s why I pulled out of camp, kind of making a sacrifice for the future.”
The decision not to go to camp may have contributed to Berhalter’s decision to leave Steffen out of the team bound for Qatar. Steven said the Philadelphia Inquirer His decision to miss summer camp came as a “shock” to Berhalter.
At the end of the summer, Stephen left Manchester City in search of more playing time. He arrived at Boro on loan, and the hope was that the consistent minutes would keep him firmly in the picture for the United States, but he missed friendlies in September as well, in the months leading up to the World Cup. Stephen returned from injury just days before that camp to play for Middlesbrough but did not earn a call-up for the matches against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Two months later, on the day of Middlesbrough’s road game against Blackpool on 8 November, Stephen woke up and saw the texts from Berhalter. The coach selected three goalkeepers who were always in the picture for the US during the tournament – Turner, Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson.
Shocked by the decision, Stephen said he has leaned heavily on his faith over the past year and a half, and that it has been crucial to his ability to recover.
“My faith has been a very big part of me this season, and as I grow in my faith, I focus on that,” Stephen said. “It definitely helped me overcome that challenge. I was trying to use the whole World Cup, not go, just as motivation.”
Stephen seems to have found a balance. He helped Middlesbrough lift the Championship standings to third place and are well positioned to fight for promotion to the Premier League. They sit just three points behind Sheffield United for automatic promotion, despite one more game to play.
For Steffen, getting promoted with Boro became his main focus. He said it motivated him to become a better goalkeeper. It has also been a huge part of his development in what is still a major growth phase for a goalkeeper. Stephen was given limited minutes at Manchester City and every performance – good or bad – was under a microscope. He said he had learned under manager Pep Guardiola not to let any kind of energy or outing get him too far.
“I feel like I’m very at peace with all the negativity,” he said. “This year I finally feel at peace with everything that’s going on and it’s part of my path. I don’t need strangers to love me. I know myself, my game, my goalkeepers and I’m going to use my staff and my coaches and our players to kind of push me to get better.”
He said his goals are simple: get promotion to Middlesbrough, become a regular in the Premier League and win trophies. He told The Inquirer he is unlikely to return to Manchester City as he wants to continue playing matches.
He also noted that a big part of setting his goals is to get back into the national team consistently – and as a starting quarterback.
The USA has several camps coming up this summer, with both the Nations League and the Gold Cup, and Stephen said he wants to be part of all the matches. He knows he’s in contention with Turner for the first position, but unlike the last cycle, he’s come into these camps as the number two player in an effort to unseat the starter.
Stephen said the camaraderie between the goalkeepers at camp is strong, but after missing out on Qatar he was determined to be in the squad for 2026.
“I am 100% committed to this team,” Stephen said. “I was thinking on the way from the airport to the hotel about when I’m going to camp from Columbus, like, ‘Wow, that was forever ago.'” Time flies. And now, I really focus on living in the moment, enjoying the time and making sure I do everything I can to stay healthy and be my best so I can get going again.
“I won’t be able to play the sport forever, dive around the goal and all that forever. So just really try and enjoy it and take it all in and play as much as I can before I hang the boots on the wall.”
(Photo: John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images)