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American Soccer Is Fine

When you see the opportunity to play in Europe.
Photo: Gerry Broome (AP Photo)

Zack Steffen, an American soccer player who currently plies his trade on U.S. soil, is set to join the English Premier League’s reigning champions. The Columbus Crew have announced that the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year will be moved to Manchester City Football Club next summer for an undisclosed transfer fee. That fee is touted by the Crew as “the largest in Club history and most ever received by an MLS club for a goalkeeper in the League’s 23-year history,” and is reported to be over $7 million.

It is easy to read this as a positive bellwether for the perpetually agonized-over state of soccer in this country. Steffen is 23 years old, undeniably talented, and a leading candidate to anchor the U.S. Men’s National Team’s defense for the next cycle—or even decade, if you want to get wild—in the pursuit of World Cup redemption. He’s one of a whole crop of American prodigies whose collective baseline skill level seems as high as any previously seen on these shores. Manchester City is a world-class powerhouse and now-perennial Champions League contender, and Zack Steffen is good enough for their side.

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All very good, in other words, but as with most any conversation between American soccer fans about the sport and its well-being, some context tempers it a bit. At this point in what’s at least the fourth decade of an American soccer boom, it’s still difficult to make a clear-eyed assessment of the state of U.S. soccer. Or, anyway, the would-be tea readers are still anxious to cite omens and signs and significant-seeming transfer fees. Even there, though, it’s not quite as simple as “Zack Steffen to Manchester City” makes it look.

Steffen really is very good, especially as a shot stopper. But that aforementioned award aside, he almost certainly was not the best goalkeeper in MLS this season. He made plenty of spectacular saves but, whether you trust the numbers or not, his statistics were less than stellar. According to American Soccer Analysis data, among the 36 keepers who faced at least 20 shots in the regular season, Steffen’s save percentage of 65.7 ranked 23rd. His goals against minus expected goals against (GA-xGA) put him 24th, giving up 1.64 more goals than their predicted model.

Even assuming that basic stats undersell his abilities, a whole list of keepers, starting with Seattle’s Stefan Frei, had a better claim to the crown. For reference, Frei had another dazzling season and ASA had Frei’s GA-xGA at an astronomical -12.96, with his next closest competition, Evan Bush, at -6.82. Steffen might not be in the best form of the potential U.S. national team net-minders at this moment, either, what with Brad Guzan having just won a title with Atlanta United and Ethan Horvath looking solid for the Belgian Club Brugge.

Steffen also probably won’t be stepping into the net at Etihad Stadium anytime soon. And even with an aging Claudio Bravo dealing with injuries, it’s unlikely that Steffen will leapfrog Arijanet Muric and Daniel Grimshaw to be the primary backup for starter and distribution virtuoso Ederson, at least not initially. Like fellow national team player Matt Miazga, at Nantes via Chelsea, Steffen seems destined to be loaned out somewhere on the continent by his new employer. Man City has already made similar, if less glamorous, moves with midfielder Mix Diskerud, formerly of its sister team NYCFC.

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There is some danger in all that uncertainty, and also in being used as a commodity by multinational corporations, but assuming Steffen makes a soft landing somewhere, this all seems more or less... fine? Steffen has said that he wanted a return to Europe to push his career forward; in spite of a less than sunny stint with Freiberg in Germany, he has been complimentary of the training he received there. As long as he’s getting playing time and quality coaching, in a place where he is happy and well-compensated—and to be fair that is a big “If” given that no one knows where he’ll land—this all seems like a step in a positive direction.

But at the risk of drawing clean parallels where no such parallels exist, this also seems like a decent representation of where we’re at with the sport as a nation. Things are… fine? The game has come a remarkable distance in recent years, and it has been a fantastic transformation to watch. A team like Man City expressing millions of dollars worth of interest in a player like Steffen is an encouraging sign full stop, even if they just see the move as an investment opportunity. But it would be healthy not just when processing the news about Steffen but as a sporting culture in general if fans were willing to be honest about American soccer’s good and the bad that remains, from an inequitable youth system to some stubborn and longstanding neurotic hang-ups. It’s important to understand and admit how far we still have to go.

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The NWSL has survived six seasons, fields many of the best players in the world, and at least at the top end generates some really entertaining soccer. It’s also somehow been tenuously operating without a commissioner since 2017 and the pay and conditions for many of the players remain shameful. The level of play in MLS is higher than ever, and the enormous fan support for Atlanta United over the last two seasons, culminating in a championship win played in front of 73,019 attendees, has been a joy. But even now the league can be accurately dismissed as a place where creaking international stars who can no longer quite compete at the top flight can spend their golden years cutting otherworldly highlight reels. The MLS might best be comparable to Liga MX—very decent soccer right next door that often gets overlooked by English-speaking American fans and media for reasons that we’d also probably benefit from unpacking—but it’s not yet in even the same solar system as the five biggest European leagues.

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It’s not for lack of effort. American teams want so badly to belong to that group that they pathologically put words like “Football Club,” “United,” “Inter,” and, unforgivably, “Real Salt Lake” in their names, apparently because they believe that’s what respectable soccer countries do. The USL recently restructured its divisional tiers to copy the naming conventions of the English Football League, despite the fact that that the MLS and USL don’t employ promotion and relegation and the more salient fact that those naming conventions are nonsensical, batshit, affronts to math and nomenclature. They are now calling what is, not actually but for the sake of argument, America’s third division “League One,” solely because that’s how it is in England.

Fans worry about players fleeing to play abroad, fearing it will weaken our domestic league, and they worry when players don’t leave to play abroad, because that will stunt their development. They, and the powers that be, parse and re-parse xenophobic notions of what makes a real American player or coach, despite the entire history of world football being a bizarre trans-national melange. As the fan-bases of niche pastimes tend to do, America’s soccer community obsesses over what’s Good or Bad For The Sport, but manages to do so without noticing that it’s been years since liking soccer in the United States was truly a niche pastime.

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Atlanta United didn’t average 53,002 fans for home games on their way to winning an MLS Championship in their second season of existence because they put “United” in their name, in short (or “FC,” for that matter). They didn’t need a coach who speaks fluent English or has a deep, meaningful relationship with the history of soccer in this country to do it. They did it by embracing their fans, by letting Big Boi hit a giant fucking spike with a sledgehammer, by playing in the big cool stadium they had available, despite its blasphemous turf, and by hiring a coach and players who are good at winning soccer games. And now that coach, Gerardo “Tata” Martino, will be leaving to take over Mexico’s men’s national team, and not the U.S.’s.

The U.S. women’s national team is once again poised to do big things in France this summer, but the men’s team is a different story entirely. After botching a mortifyingly easy qualifying campaign to miss their first World Cup since 1986, the program bungled the 14-month-long process to find a coach. The end result was installing Gregg Berhalter, the brother of United States Soccer’s COO, who went 74-69-50 with a +6 goal differential coaching in the MLS. That said, Berhalter was a good coach under terrible circumstances for the Crew and as a choice for the national team job he will probably be, again… fine? (The Crew, by the way, will remain in Columbus, because the MLS is now big enough for one of its teams to be rescued from the rich son of an energy magnate by the rich NFL-owner son of a convenience store magnate. This is good for the team’s fans and as a sign of the league’s relevance, but less uplifting as an reminder of how things work at this scale.) It’s disappointing that U.S. Soccer is so entrenched in its myopia, but ignoring the relatively risqué chance they took on Klinsmann, there’s no reason to think Berhalter will do any worse than Arena, or Bradley, or especially, Arena in his second time around.

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Zack Steffen is now a member of Manchester City, for however long that lasts. Hopefully he lands in a good situation where he can continue to develop and get paid his stacks. Maybe he’ll even end up playing some games for Pep Guardiola. Tyler Adams is on his way to RB Leipzig. His former teammate Aaron Long won Defender of the Year in the MLS. Josh Sargent just scored his first goal for Werder Bremen. Weston McKennie is healthy and playing again at Schalke. Christian Pulisic you know about, and though he hasn’t been starting league matches lately and there have been transfer rumors, he remains an absolute delight and has a real chance to win a Bundesliga title with Dortmund. It’s natural to get excited for these young players, to critique their flaws, and to debate about what’s best for their future. It is also entirely okay to just sit back and enjoy watching them play.

Even if Berhalter proves himself a solid choice and Steffen just keeps improving in Europe and Pulisic and the rest of the precocious youths turn into the best squad the U.S. has ever assembled, they are not going to flip a switch and start instantly and consistently competing with the world’s best overnight. Between now and whenever then arrives, fans might do well to stop worrying so much about whether or not we’re a serious soccer nation, embrace what’s unique about American soccer, and maybe bask in pictures of Jeezy in a “HUSTLE FOR GLORY” scarf. It will all be fine. Really.

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About the author

Josh Tucker

Josh Tucker is a freelance writer who has appeared at Deadspin, Kotaku, Waypoint, Pastime, Vice Sports, and The Classical. Email: HugeMantis @ gmail dot com