Zack Steffen figures to make a rare appearance in goal Thursday when the United States plays Wales in Swansea.
The 25-year-old is the top American goalkeeper but has played two matches since December, missing the second half of last season with a knee injury while on loan to Fortuna Düsseldorf and then spending most of this season on Manchester City's bench after taking over from Claudio Bravo as Ederson's backup.
"I'm really happy with where I'm at right now," Steffen said Tuesday. "I want to be on the field, but I'll keep working hard and keep pushing those guys in front of me and they'll keep pushing me."
The U.S. had a long history of top goalkeepers, with Tony Meola starting at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, Kasey Keller in 1998 and 2006, Brad Friedel in 2002 and Tim Howard in 2010 and 2014.
Howard was still the top choice at age 38 when the Americans were eliminated from qualifying for the 2018 tournament with the October 2017 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago. Steffen appears to have emerged as the new No. 1 over 36-year-old Brad Guzan, 29-year-old Bill Hamid and 31-year-old Sean Johnson heading into the start of 2022 World Cup qualifying next September.
"Ideally, all the players play regularly," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. "And that includes goalkeepers. I think Zack, in this particular situation, has a great opportunity to play at one of the best clubs in the world and he's behind one of the top three goalies in the world. I think in that environment every day is helpful. It's helpful to a certain point."
Born in the Philadelphia suburb of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Steffen started youth soccer as a defender and switched to goalkeeper when he was 10. He went to Malvern Prep for two years and Downingtown West High School while also playing for the Philadelphia Union's academy, then played two seasons at the University of Maryland before signing with Germany's Freiburg in December 2014 at age 19.
Steffen played for fourth-tier Freiburg II in 2015-16, then signed with Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew and was loaned to Pittsburgh of the third-tier United Soccer League for the rest of the 2016 season. He started for Columbus under Berhalter in 2017 and '18, earning MLS goalkeeper of the year in his second season, then agreed to a transfer to Manchester City effective in the summer of 2019.
City loaned him to Düsseldorf and Steffen started the team's first 17 Bundesliga games through Dec. 22, then was sidelined after injuring the patellar tendon in his left knee.
Steffen hurt a knee again in late April during the pandemic stoppage and missed the rest of the season. He stayed with City for 2020-21 rather than go out on another loan but has played just twice, in the English League Cup for a 2-1 win over Bournemouth on Sept. 24 and a 3-0 victory over Burnley on Sept. 30.
"I feel like coming from Germany, being out so long right now, City is giving me a lot of confidence to go back out on the field," Steffen said. "And each day the keeper coach, the keepers, the players are pushing me to get better, and I feel like I'm in that process, and I'm feeling good and feeling better each and every day, each and every week. And just being around those high level players just has made me better, has made me a more confident player as well."
After starting for the U.S. at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup, Steffen made his national team debut in January 2018 against Bosnia-Herzegovina and made six appearances that year. He started 11 of Berhalter's first 19 matches, including five of six at last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup, increasing his international appearances to 17.
"He doesn't look rusty at all," Berhalter said. "He looks sharp. He looks confident. I can see his passing has improved and his crispness and his decision-making have improved. So as I'm concerned, he's in a great spot to continue to learn and develop his craft."
Steffen is working with Pep Guardiola, the 2011 FIFA Coach of the Year and a four-time La Liga Coach of the Year with Barcelona and two-time Premier League Manager of the Season with City. Xabier Mancisidor is the goalkeeper coach after following Manuel Pellegrini from Real Madrid and staying on.
"The player care is just more prominent," Steffen said. "They want us to be fully focused on football and they really help us out and worry about everything else, whether that's car, whether that's banking, whether that's housing, family stuff, anything. Anything at all, they're one call away, one text away. They really make us feel, yeah, comfortable and so, obviously, your status goes up playing in the Premier League a little bit."
He's noticed technical improvement in his play, including where he places his feet and how he moves his hands. He's learning the reasons behind the techniques.
"I feel like I've already grown on the field with City. Their goalie coach is really detailed and is very eager to make me a better goalkeeper," Steffen said. "Right now I'm trusting the process. I'm getting these games in with the EFL Cup and I'm just trying to learn from the guys in training, from my staff, and then hopefully coming into these camps and getting games here. And, yeah, the rest will work itself out as long as I work hard."