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Zack Steffen talks Atlanta heroics, NYCFC, USMNT

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Europe has become the holy grail — if you will — for rising American stars, but Zack Steffen’s move back to Major League Soccer has made him one of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s hottest goalkeeping prospects.

The 22-year-old Pennsylvania native quickly became a name to know back in 2014 when he burst onto the European soccer scene after signing with German side SC Freiburg.

[ MORE: Whitecaps, Sounders end scoreless in Western Conference first leg ]

While the move quickly thrust him into the discussion as the “next big thing” in the USMNT goalkeeper pecking order, trailing the likes of Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, his time in Europe didn’t go according to plan after appearing in just 14 matches for Freiburg’s second team.

However, Steffen’s return to the MLS setup with Columbus Crew SC has brought him back into the spotlight, as he and his side quietly moved into the MLS Cup Playoffs as the most in-form team in the league.

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Pro Soccer Talk caught up with Steffen ahead of the Crew’s Eastern Conference semifinals clash against New York City FC.

“It’s always hard when you’re playing on the road, and the ball just didn’t seem like it wanted to go into the net, so I knew that made my job that much more important,” Steffen told PST following Thursday night’s dramatic penalty kicks win over Atlanta United. “I put an emphasis on every single game I play in, but I knew that I needed to play my best in order to give us a chance to win against a really talented Atlanta side.”

Early in the match, Steffen was called upon to make one of the saves of the 2017 season, as he leapt to his right to get a fingertip on Miguel Almiron’s curling effort in the 11th minute (video below).

It was the moment that provided the visiting Crew with a momentum-shift in their favor, which lasted the length of the match.

Speaking specifically on his own performance in the match, Steffen was pleased with his and his team’s resiliency on the road against one of the more boisterous crowds in all of MLS.

“It was huge for me,” Steffen continued. “It was huge for our team. I think we needed that momentum early on because they are a strong side and playing in front of that crowd made things really difficult early on. I think we absorbed their pressure early, which gave us a good shot to close the game out in penalties.”

Since June 24, the Crew have looked like a completely different team for a variety of reasons. Greg Berhalter’s side has lost just three matches in that span and boasting a 10-3-5 record overall — including Columbus’ win against Atlanta.

Despite the club’s success over the second half of the season, the Crew haven’t been discussed heavily by many as the number five seed heading into the East playoffs.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to Steffen and his teammates, though, who embrace the role of underdog as they aim to bring Columbus their second championship in franchise history (2008).

“Honestly, I feel like a lot of us in Columbus fly under the radar,” Steffen said jokingly. “That probably just comes with the territory of playing in a lesser-known market, but I give our guys a ton of credit because we’ve gotten much better as the season has progressed.

“The second half of the season is a more accurate indication of the team we are, and can be. I think we showed that in the first round and will continue to do so moving forward in the playoffs.”

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Steffen believes his side is more focused than ever, especially his Crew teammates that fell to the Portland Timbers in the 2015 MLS Cup final — a match that saw the Eastern Conference side give up two goals inside the opening 7 minutes of play at MAPFRE Stadium.

“I think a lot of it comes down to our mentality improving since the All-Star Break,” Steffen told PST regarding the Crew’s rising play throughout the season. “We’re much more focused in training, and that’s translated well to game days. We have some work left to do this season, but I think we’re at a really good point with our form right now.

“I obviously wasn’t part of the squad two seasons ago that went to the final, but many of my teammates were and I know that all of us are itching to get to MLS Cup. It’s not just about our team. It’s about the great fans that support this club. We’re hoping to deliver another championship this year.”

Atlanta certainly proved to be a formidable challenge for the Crew to start their postseason run, and up next for Berhalter’s squad is New York City FC.

The two sides have familiarity with one another, after meeting at Yankee Stadium in the regular season finale on Decision Day — a 2-2 draw which saw Steffen make a crucial penalty-kick save on David Villa in the closing minutes.

Steffen boasted the second-best save percentage on penalties in the regular season, with three denials on seven spot-kick chances. That’s of course excluding his brilliant shootout showing against Atlanta, which saw the young shot-stopper make two critical saves after extra time to help Columbus progress.

“It’s definitely a huge help for us having that familiarity with NYCFC after playing them last week,” Steffen said of Tuesday’s opponent. “They’re a very strong side, with guys like [David] Villa, but I think we showed our ability to go to their place and get a result. If we can take care of business at home then I feel we’re exactly where we want to be heading into the away leg.”

The Crew have been a clear lift to Steffen’s morale as a player since linking up with MLS side last season, and while his focus remains on his club side, there is still that same drive and passion from before that he hopes will someday guide him towards the USMNT.

After previously appearing for the Under-18, U-20 and U-23 national teams, Steffen is on the right track. Now, he knows that he just needs to put it all together and “become the best player” that he can be.

“It’s always an honor to play for the national team,” Steffen told PST. “I’ve been able to have that opportunity since I was 12/13 years old, so it’s always a great experience to test yourself against the best from your country and then obviously guys from top countries like Brazil and European nations.

“The national team isn’t my top priority at the moment because I’m trying to become the best player that I can be, but I definitely want the chance to represent USMNT in the future because it would be a dream.”

Pressure builds on Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Bosz

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Borussia Dortmund has fallen to fifth in the Bundesliga table thanks to a trio of consecutive losses in league play, and suddenly there is loads of pressure on manager Peter Bosz.

The Dutchman came to Westfalenstadion after upper management pushed Thomas Tuchel out over the summer, and while he won seven of his first eight league matches in charge by a total goal differential of 21-2, things have come crashing down. The black & yellow have lost three in a row Bundesliga matches and four of their last five across all competitions, with their only win in that span coming over third-tier Magdenburg.

With fans feeling helpless over the departure of the wildly successful Tuchel that came as a result of a falling out between the German and his superiors, Bosz would always be on a short leash. He inherited a flawed squad, yet one that had achieved much under his predecessor, and immediate failures would naturally be lumped on the new man.

The most recent defeat, a 2-1 falter at Stuttgart, was a microcosm of Dortmund’s recent failures. The team conceded a comically poor goal five minutes into the match, worked hard to equalize just before the halftime break, and conceded again just after returning to the pitch. They controlled much of the match, but largely failed to capitalize.

The head man summed it up pretty well. “The defeat really hurts,” Bosz proclaimed after the final whistle. “We came here to win, so we’re very disappointed. When you see the goals we conceded, it borders on the ridiculous. It hurts because we actually put in a relatively good performance in the first half. The team performed well after conceding the early goal, only the final ball was lacking. The second half wasn’t as good. We need to keep going, we won’t give up.”

So what do the Dortmund executives do? Does Bosz get the benefit of the doubt based on performances? Or does he get blamed for the sudden dropoff in results? There is plenty of pressure given the team sits not only nine points back of Borussia Dortmund in league play, but is also third in a brutal Champions League group with almost no hope of recovery, and even threatens to miss out on a drop to Europa League play if they slip behind Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia, whom they find themselves level on points with.

Even if the club sticks with the Dutchman for now, his room for error has almost completely evaporated and it’s only mid-November. The next two matches will likely tell the tale, and it’s an uphill battle. Tottenham comes to Westfalenstadion on the backs of a disappointing defeat to North London foes Arsenal, followed by the home end of the Rivierderby against a Schalke side that sits second in the Bundesliga table, three points above Bosz and Dortmund.

Antonio Conte calls Tony Pulis a “really good manager”

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West Brom, after four straight defeats, sits 17th in the Premier League table, most recently suffering a 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Chelsea.

Yet Blues boss Antonio Conte has offered his counterpart an olive branch, supporting his fellow Premier League manager at a time of panic.

With reports that Pulis could be fired this coming week – some say as early as Monday – the Baggies boss is under heaps of pressure, but Conte doesn’t believe he should be. “I must be honest, I think Tony Pulis is a really good manager,” Conte said, hoping those in charge don’t make decisions based on Sunday’s result.

“He has great experience and it’s always very difficult to play against his team. This game became easy because we started very strong, with great concentration and desire to win. We showed from the start our will to win this game. But I repeat: Last season we struggled a lot against them.”

West Brom has lost four in a row in league play, and they haven’t picked up a win since August, and as The Guardian points out, they have the lowest average possession in the Premier League and have the second-lowest shots on target thus far. They registered just two shots on target against Chelsea, and held 39% possession, which is actually slightly above their average for the season.

Sergio Ramos suffers broken nose in Atletico Madrid draw

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Real Madrid trails Barcelona by 10 points in the La Liga title race just 12 matches in, and now they will have to play catch-up without their best defender.

Club captain Sergio Ramos suffered a broken nose after being accidentally kicked in the face by teammate Lucas Hernandez during the first half of Madrid’s 0-0 draw with cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid. He received treatment and remained on the field, but he was withdrawn at halftime.

Manager Zinedine Zidane was unable to give a timetable for Ramos’s return.

Ramos said via Twitter, alongside some graphic images of his bloody nose, “I would bleed a thousand times for this badge and this shirt. Thanks for your support. I’ll be back in no time.”

Up next for Madrid is Champions League group match against Cypriot club Apoel midweek before a league game against Malaga at home. Athletic Bilbao and Borussia Dortmund are also on the horizon. A masked Sergio Ramos could be in our midst soon.

Real Madrid has not lost a league match without Ramos since March of 2015, but they drew their only game this season with Ramos suspended, a 2-2 home split with Valencia.

Moyes roasts West Ham players after loss to Watford

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After his first game in charge of West Ham, David Moyes thought he had a better squad. Apparently he was mistaken.

A 2-0 loss to Watford gave Moyes a rude awakening as he looks to replace Slaven Bilic and pull the Hammers out of the relegation zone. He was not pleased with his players.

“Overall, that level of performance will not be good enough,” Moyes told reporters after the match.

He wasn’t done.

“I thought this was a big job, but there were some players with big reputations who disappointed me. There were some who I thought would show me more, and why they play for the team regularly. They need to show me, ‘If that’s your reputation, show me why you’ve got it.'”

He backtracked slightly, agreeing that the players are in a difficult position changing managers, but ultimately that excuse wasn’t enough for him. “It’s tough for the players – I could sense that – but I didn’t enjoy our performance in the end. I didn’t enjoy us giving the ball away too cheaply, too many times and I expected us to do better.”

Moyes even called out striker Andy Carroll, saying he removed the England international because he feared Carroll would pick up a second yellow card. Carroll could have been carded seven seconds into the match, leaving Marvin Zeegelaar with a bloody nose after an elbow to the face, something Carroll has been sent off for earlier this season. He was eventually given one in the 28th minute.

“I thought we defended OK,” Moyes said, “but then we gave away cheap goals by getting bundled off the ball and we didn’t really deal with it. We didn’t do well enough in all departments at different times.”

That’s about as ruthless as you’ll ever hear the mild-mannered David Moyes, and all West Ham players should beware that their places in the team are in jeopardy.