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Zack Steffen’s World Cup soccer snub for U.S. stuns many

Reasons for manager Gregg Berhalter excluding standout goalkeeper from roster still don’t seem clear

Jovial and calmly content would be the accurate descriptions of how Zack Steffen was feeling before the U.S. men’s national team roster was released for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The 27-year-old’s season-long club loan move from English giants Manchester City to reputable second-division club Middlesbrough, was giving the Pennsylvania goalkeeper what he was looking for with his temporary club: A consistent run of games to firmly retake his starter’s spot with the U.S. men’s national team for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Steffen had overcome a nagging knee issue from the start of the year through to the summer and was enthusiastic about his continuously progressing form.

“My mental state right now is really good, really clear,” Steffen told Andscape. “I am enjoying my playing, I’m enjoying just being out there and honestly having the opportunity. God has been so gracious and kind for giving me this opportunity with Middlesbrough. Beginning of the season had been tough, with a new team, different coaches, the knee and so I feel that I’ve settled down. I’m doing all the right things that I need to do to stay healthy, to stay on that field and just getting a run of games and training consistently and making me feel more like myself.”

But in an unexpected and frankly baffling move, team manager Gregg Berhalter decided to not only deny Steffen the position of No.1 keeper for the American team in Qatar but leave him off the 26-player roster entirely.

Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson were instead the three goalkeeping choices for Berhalter, who has had a professional relationship with Steffen since 2017. Berhalter named Steffen his starting keeper that year when both were part of MLS’ Columbus Crew, setting the path for Steffen to turn his promising teen talent into legit stardom.

With that close history, it made Berhalter’s decision to leave Steffen off the World Cup roster, arguably the biggest roster shock move in American soccer history, so difficult for him to make.

“Me and Zack go way back, and Zack’s been there for me a bunch of times,” Berhalter said after the squad announcement. “And to tell him he is not going to be part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking for me. But those are decisions that we made as a staff and we move forward and now it’s about, ‘Well, who do we have in camp and how are we going to be successful?’ “

Manchester City’s Zack Steffen in action during training at Manchester City Football Academy on May 9 in Manchester, England.

Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

The heartbreak of that conversation for both parties is why Steffen himself declined to comment on how devastated he is by Berhalter’s controversial move, and how Kayla Castro, a representative for the goalkeeper, embodied his dismay.

“Unfortunately, this is part of the game and process and we can only hope he learns and grows from it,” she told Andscape. “We will all be supporting him and uplifting him through this process as well!”

Before the team announcement, Steffen told Andscape that he was so comfortable with his and Berhalter’s relationship that he labeled him as a “friend.”

“It was a really good time in Columbus, I learned a lot under him,” Steffen said. “On and off the field, he is a competitor, he loves to win, hates to lose, is always trying to get better, always trying to find new ways to grow. He’s given me tons of support ever since I came to Columbus up until now, he’s always been there, just as a friend and then as a coach as well. When we go into camp, it’s always good, it’s always positive, he’s always trying to make camp and the culture within the team very positive and a really good environment to be in a family-oriented culture. It’s always a pleasure to be on the national team.”

No one could accuse Berhalter of blind loyalty and bringing all of his past favorites after this decision. But massive questions and criticism have certainly come for the 49-year-old tactician after a notable figure like Steffen was left off a World Cup roster he was long expected to play a pivotal role in.

Turner moved from the New England Revolution to Premier League power Arsenal over the summer, fully aware that he would be the backup to Aaron Ramsdale. Steffen not only lived the past two seasons at Manchester City as Brazilian No. 1 Ederson’s understudy, but wanted to use his Middlesbrough loan move to regain his No. 1 position with the U.S. With only a few starts for Mikel Arteta’s revitalized team, Turner is facing the same issue that was a conundrum for Steffen: Is being a backup at an elite club instead of being the No. 1 keeper for a lesser club enough game time to be sharp for the team?

Turner also just recovered from a groin injury to resume first-team training with Arsenal, putting the choice of him over Steffen into further question.

Yet, for Berhalter to bypass Steffen for Horvath and Johnson makes any explanation from the team manager about the choice all the more confusing. Horvath, on loan from Premier League club Nottingham Forest, is having a fine season at Championship club Luton Town, but was never ahead of Steffen in the team pecking order. Johnson has never played in Europe.

Berhalter told ESPN’s Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar on Nov. 9 that Steffen’s exclusion was in part due to “his body of work over the last 1½ years” and thinking that the U.S. men’s national team “needed more from Zack.”

“Those are decisions that we made as a staff and we move forward and now it’s about, ‘Well, who do we have in camp and how are we going to be successful?’ ” Berhalter said. “I think it’s more about who we do have and the comfort level with the guys that are on the roster. We felt really comfortable with [Turner, Horvath and Johnson], and that’s the direction we decided to go.”

It’s a potential further indictment on Berhalter with how Steffen has regained his top form with Middlesbrough over the last month. After Boro’s tough start to the season that featured one high-profile mistake in which Steffen misjudged a corner kick cross vs. QPR, he has provided needed stability for a club that’s risen from the relegation zone of 18th to 20th place to 16th.

Unlike the global popularity and availability the Premier League’s games on different platforms, the second-tier Championship has a select few games available globally without needing an illegal livestream to see them. But with social media, from Twitter updates to instant highlights on YouTube, one could quickly search to see if Steffen was performing to a level of his hype as the best U.S. goalkeeping prospect since Tim Howard.

Steffen has helped spur Middlesbrough’s turnaround, with the team scoring more than half of the points in its last nine games (14 out of a possible 27). The team has won five matches in that stretch, with Steffen securing three shutouts. And he has received the full confidence of the team’s new manager Michael Carrick, who replaced the fired Chris Wilder three weeks ago in October.

Making Steffen’s shocking exclusion from the 2022 World Cup roster even more capricious is the partnership Steffen’s pro-equality, pro-Black, nonprofit organization VOYCENOW officially just launched with U.S. Soccer, as the country’s soccer body announced a clothing collaboration this month with the group, which was started following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. In contrast to FIFA’s continued insistence on its World Cup teams not engaging in any political talk amid the controversies surrounding the treatment and deaths of migrant stadium workers in Qatar, Steffen candidly expressed how he would keep on speaking out on social injustices, domestically or globally.

“This is exactly why we at VOYCENOW created this clothing line with U.S. Soccer and made this statement, that love conquers all,” Steffen said to Andscape. “Because love wouldn’t make all those decisions that FIFA has made for this World Cup, human rights decisions and with treating people so poorly.”

Unexpectedly, Steffen won’t get that opportunity in Qatar.

U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen (center) shakes hands with goalkeeper Ethan Horvath (right) after suffering a leg injury during the CONCACAF Nations League finals between Mexico and the United States on June 6, 2021, at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After being groomed for years to be the next American star goalkeeper at a World Cup, and doing everything he needed to show that he was active, sharp and not spending most of the first half of the 2022-23 club season as a backup, Steffen was inexplicably blindsided. Berhalter or any national team manager wants to see their players consistently starting or receiving significant minutes at a high level. Berhalter couldn’t use Steffen playing in the English Football League Championship, which is still arguably a top-10 league in the world despite being a second division, as the reason he excluded him, because Horvath and Sargent are playing there too. And he couldn’t claim Steffen was too inactive because he’s been playing starter’s minutes this season, unlike Turner.

Plus, by picking Johnson from 2021 MLS champions New York City FC over Steffen, Berhalter is choosing the North American league’s level of play over some footballers participating regularly in a superior European league.

Steffen’s exclusion is arguably the biggest World Cup roster snub in team history, rivaling Jurgen Klinsmann’s final rejection of Landon Donovan for Brazil in 2014 and Bruce Arena leaving off Taylor Twellman for Germany 2006. At least with those two polarizing moments all knew that Donovan or Twellman had 50-50 shots at either making those teams or not. With Steffen, one of the faces of American men’s soccer after the debacle of the team missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia, no one could have envisioned him being anything other than a lock.

Steffen posted an Instagram story with the words of Solomon from Proverbs 3:1-6 to cope with the devastating news, which includes messages of encouragement such as, “Never let loyalty and kindness leave you” and “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”

This painful snub from Berhalter does not and will not define Steffen’s career, with many more years of playing in front of him and a World Cup on home soil in 2026 now on his mind. It could, however, define whether Berhalter and the team have success in Qatar and if he is able to keep his job in 2023.

Turner, Horvath or Johnson will be in goal for the U.S. in Group B versus Wales, England and Iran. One question will be, “What would Zack Steffen, our starting goalkeeper for most of qualifying and the most talented in a generation, have done in these crucial World Cup moments?”

Andrew Jones is a sports, political and culture writer whose work has appeared on The Guardian, MSNBC, Ebony Magazine, Salon, SB Nation and The Intercept. He is also proud of his Brooklynite, "Do or Die" Bed-Stuy ways.