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After winning the Premier League with Manchester City, Zack Steffen is ready to lead the U.S. men's soccer team's quest for trophies
AP

After winning the Premier League with Manchester City, Zack Steffen is ready to lead the U.S. men's soccer team's quest for trophies

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Zack Steffen of Manchester City looks on during the Premier League match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on January 3, 2021 in London, England.

Zack Steffen of Manchester City looks on during the Premier League match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on January 3, 2021 in London, England. (Andy Rain/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — A 26-year-old Downingtown (Pa.) West alum recently became the first American ever to win a title in the English Premier League, one of the world's most prestigious soccer competitions.

Has that sunk in yet?

"No, it has not," said Zack Steffen, the alum in question.

"I don't know if it'll sink in until maybe I'm back home with my family and friends, or maybe next season, or in a couple seasons," Steffen told The Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview this week. "But yeah, right now it's just surreal. And obviously I'm very happy to be where I am, and very thankful and grateful."

Steffen played 12 games for Manchester City in his first full season actually playing with the English club. City won all but one of those games as it romped to the Premier League and EFL Cup titles, reached the semifinals of the FA Cup and the final of the Champions League. (That FA Cup semifinal, a 1-0 loss to Chelsea, was the lone defeat.)

When City signed Steffen from the Columbus Crew in the summer of 2019, it loaned him to German club Fortuna Düsseldorf so he could play a lot. The decision to keep him in Manchester this season as the No. 2 goalkeeper raised eyebrows.

But manager Pep Guardiola knew he'd need a deep squad to play 61 games across four competitions this season, from the Premier League opener on Sept. 21 to the Champions League final on May 29. No goalkeeper, not even City's superb No. 1 Ederson, could play them all.

Oh, and throw in pandemic-enforced lockdowns in England for good measure.

"Mentally it was a little draining at times, during the Christmas period when my family couldn't come over and I was living on my own for a couple months" Steffen said. "But the camaraderie and the brotherhood of the guys and the culture of the team is really strong. ... It was a season of growth for me on and off the field."

That camaraderie was forged in a star-studded training environment managed by one of the game's preeminent coaches, Pep Guardiola.

"Pep's, very passionate, he's very demanding — he just loves the game of football, he loves his players," Steffen said. "He's a perfectionist, he's obviously one of the best coaches of all time, and it's been a pleasure to be by him every day and see what he's like."

For some people in the soccer world, the club game in Europe has become the pinnacle of the sport, especially if you're with a colossus like Manchester City. For Americans, though, the pinnacle is still the U.S. national team.

"Our goal is to lift a World Cup trophy," Steffen said. "If that's not your goal, to do the greatest thing in your area of expertise [or] career, I believe, then why are you doing it? So yeah, for this group, it's winning the World Cup."

His words were just as blunt as what you'd hear from Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle and Abby Dahlkemper, U.S. women's stars who've played for Manchester City's women's team during Steffen's time with the men's squad.

But no one needs reminding that the trophy cases are unequal — especially anyone still scarred by the U.S. men's team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. This week, Steffen can help the program take a big step toward healing.

Not only will Steffen be the Americans' starting goalkeeper in the Concacaf Nations League final four, he'll be playing on arguably the most talented U.S. men's team ever assembled. His colleagues will hail from some of the biggest clubs in England, Germany, Spain, England and other major European nations.

Many of them haven't played on U.S. soil in years. Steffen, for example, hasn't played a home game for his country since Sept, 7, 2019. Winger Gio Reyna (son of U.S. legend Claudio), midfielder Yunus Musah, and striker Jordan Siebatcheu never have. (Nor has No. 3 goalkeeper David Ochoa, though he plays in MLS for Real Salt Lake.)

These games have real stakes, too. Thursday's semifinal against Honduras (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network, Univision, TUDN, Paramount+) is the first big-time contest for the Americans since the 2019 Gold Cup. Sunday's final (9 p.m., same outlets) or third-place game (6:30 p.m., Paramount+, UniMás, TUDN) against Mexico or Costa Rica will be the last before World Cup qualifying starts in September.

There will be around 32,000 fans at Denver's Empower Field at Mile High, home of the NFL's Broncos, for the occasion. Ticket sales were capped before the city loosened its pandemic restrictions this week.

"It's going to be an awesome feeling, and I'm hoping it's going to be a great night," said Steffen, jokingly adding that he hopes they won't all be rooting for Mexico. (He knows most of them will be, as is always the case when Mexico in the U.S.)

"We get the opportunity to play some competitive games and have the opportunity to lift our first trophy together," he said. "We're very excited, we're very motivated, and we're pretty close-knit right now."

As with many of the big-time players on this U.S. squad, Steffen didn't make his national team debut until after that infamous loss at Trinidad & Tobago four years ago, on the final night of the qualifying campaign. But he has heard the stories, and certainly heard the uproar.

"That's all the talk from the fans and the reporters and all that stuff — what we're talking about is just wanting to change the way the world views American soccer," Steffen said. "We're very young, and we're still trying to learn the game and learn each other and learn ourselves, so it's a lot to take in. But that's the beauty of the sport, and we're very determined to lift trophies, to win as many games as possible, and become the best team that we can."

There's another piece to the puzzle that excites Steffen: having three teammates on this squad who hail from the greater Philadelphia area. Medford's Brenden Aaronson might have the fastest-rising stock of any current U.S big-timer. Bear, Del.'s Mark McKenzie played well in a tuneup game against Switzerland last Sunday. Hershey's Christian Pulisic, the star of stars, just won the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea.

Coincidentally, they all spent time in the Union's youth academy before achieving greater fame. Steffen still remember playing for an under-17 team coached by Jim Curtin that won the 2012 Generation adidas Cup. The title game went to a penalty kick shootout, and Steffen made saves in the first and last rounds.,

If all four men make next year's World Cup team, as they are projected to do, it would set a record for the most local players ever in one tournament. It would also cement this region as one of the nation's top producers of soccer talent. Steffen knows how big that would be in a place where the traditional American sports have ruled for decades.

"Honestly, I never could have thought of that," he said. "It's pretty crazy, it's pretty awesome."

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