“I knew he would save it!”
It takes a huge amount of confidence for a coach to be sure that his goalkeeper will palm a penalty away in the 83rd minute of a Round of 16 match at a global finals with the score at 1-0, but that is exactly the level of trust Zackary Steffen has earned from Tab Ramos. The game could easily have tipped at that point, the momentum shifting entirely in the other team’s favour. What’s more, the Colombians played out the remaining minutes with a one-man advantage after Kellyn Perry-Acosta received his second yellow card for the foul that led to the spot-kick. But Steffen was ready: “I had a really good feeling before the penalty,” said the match-winner modestly.
Steffen stood motionless for a long time on his line, not moving a muscle until he made himself big and opted to dive for the right-hand corner – which proved to be the right corner in every respect. “I tried to stay still for as long as possible, to give the striker nothing to work with and give him no idea which corner I was going to pick,” the USA custodian explained. “I also tried to look the kicker in the eye in an attempt to irritate him or perhaps give him something to think about.”
The American coach has every reason to place such deep trust in his goalkeeper. The save ‘Zack’ pulled off against Colombia is a repeat of the one he made in a FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifier at the end of January. In the crucial match against El Salvador, with the score also 1-0 to the USA, Steffen revealed his talent as a spot-kick specialist and secured his country’s place at the World Cup finals. “I really don’t like those situations much," he told FIFA.com. "And it’s frustrating for me when we practise penalties in training because the ball usually just whistles past my ear.”
I think they’re an opponent on our level and a side we don’t have to hide from.
Last year, Steffen's idol Tim Howard had a fabulous game against Belgium at the FIFA World Cup™, making an incredible 15 saves and setting a new competition record in the process. Thanks to Steffen, those memories came flooding back for the USA fans. The Cafeteros fired a full 24 shots towards goal, but none of them managed to beat the 1.92m keeper. Whether the Colombians tried to beat him with a long-range effort or a one-on-one, Steffen always had the answer.
“They really warmed me up during the course of the match,” the Freiburg man said. “For a goalkeeper, it’s nice when you get that much to do. Of course I like it when my team-mates can help out in that area, as they ultimately do most of the work,” he concluded, giving a hint of his status as a strong team player.
The 20-year-old previously gathered experience at a U-20 World Cup in Turkey two years ago, albeit as third-choice goalkeeper, but the tournament was over for the Stars and Stripes after the group stage. Things are looking very different now. “We’re really being very cautious,” said Steffen. “We’re now focusing on Serbia and will be ready for that game. I think they’re an opponent on our level and a side we don’t have to hide from.”
One thing is certain: if the USA get into another penalty shootout, they will be in safe hands. Steffen will have no objections in finding himself at the bottom of another pile of grateful team-mates, just as he was at the end of the Colombia game. After all, as he said: “Our main objective now is to make it all the way to the final.”