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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.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

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.”

MLS 3 Things: Resurgent Zardes, Toronto up, New England down

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A busy Saturday in Major League Soccer sees three interesting results bolstering the story lines of the final few months of the season.

[ MORE: Unstoppable Josef | Zlatan, too ]

1) Imagine a world with the reigning champs as your reward for finishing first.

With 14 matches to play, Toronto FC has Jozy Altidore back in the fold and has pulled to within eight points of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot after a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday.

Sebastian Giovinco looks like Sebastian Giovinco in scoring another outstanding goal, just his fifth of the season, while Jonathan Osorio also scored in the win.

Before you watch Seba’s goal, picture you’ve won the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now picture TFC as your semifinal reward.

2) New England is well and truly slumping

Brad Friedel‘s Revs are slipping after losing a third-straight league match, and New England has gained a solitary point since the calendar turned to July following a 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena.

Fourth through ninth in the East are separated by nine points, and New England is very much in that mix now. Friedel is certainly at the most trying time of his tenure.

Second half goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer did the trick for RBNY, who have claimed 15 of the last 18 points available to them (The lone blemish is the Hudson River Derby).

The Red Bulls are now 8-1-1 at home this season, while New England is 1-4-4 away from Foxboro.

3) Gyasi Zardes’ return to form is surprising and wonderful

Columbus has its second win since May 19, and will be feeling much better about itself following a 3-2 comeback win over Orlando City which included a pair of equalizers.

One of those came in the 88th minute, as Gyasi Zardes completed his brace by converting a penalty won by new arrival Patrick Mullins.

The Crew won late via a rare Wil Trapp goal — the USMNT midfielder has just two in 161 matches — but let’s focus on Zardes.

Zardes’ 13th goal of the season continues an amazing turnaround under striker whisperer Gregg Berhalter. It’s Zardes’ second double-digit season, and his first since 2014. He is firmly in frame for another USMNT look, this time as a center forward, but first there’s plenty to like about the big man.

Surging Galaxy ride Ibrahimovic magic to 3-1 win (video)

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man on fire, and the LA Galaxy are rounding into form.

The Galaxy overcame an early deficit in Chester to clobber the Philadelphia Union 3-1 on Saturday behind a goal and an assist from their world-class striker.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

Romain Alessandrini had two assists, while Michael Ciani and Ola Kamara also scored for LA. CJ Sapong scored for Philly, assisted by Borek Dockal.

Unbeaten-in-seven LA moves into fourth in the West with the win, while Philadelphia remains three points back of sixth in the East.

Ibrahimovic has now scored in six of his last seven matches, and has 12 goals and two assists in 21 matches overall.

Let’s start with the assist, which we must’ve seen two dozen times when the big Swede was with Paris Saint-Germain.

Ibrahimovic takes a difficult pass out of the air with absurd touch, then waits for the right time to send an impeccable through ball into the path of Kamara.

As for the goal, you almost feel for Mark McKenzie.

The Union’s Homegrown defender has to choose between Alessandrini darting into his box and allowing Ibrahimovic a lick of space.

He gives it, understandably, then rushes to close down Ibrahimovic.

It wasn’t fast enough. Boom.

Americans on both sides, Weah scores as PSG fall to Bayern (video)

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Two hopes of the USMNT’s future — one more immediate than the other — squared off in the International Champions Cup on Saturday.

Paris Saint-Germain teenager Timothy Weah, 18, went 90 minutes and scored his side’s only goal in the 3-1 loss in Austria.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

On the other side of the field was 62nd minute substitute Chris Richards, far less known to the American supporter.

Richards is on loan from FC Dallas, where he’s a Homegrown Player. The 18-year-old center back is going to play for Bayern’s U-19 side following a successful trial in April.

Both Bayern and PSG were without key pieces, as Weah went up against a decent Bayern back line of Juan Bernat, Javi Martinez, Josip Stanisic, and Rafinha.

Arjen Robben, Sandro Wagner, and Franck Ribery were the biggest names in Bayern’s XI, while David Alaba, Kingsley Coman, and Serge Gnabry came off the bench.

For PSG, Gianluigi Buffon started as did Adrien Rabiot.

Weah’s goal is below, and here’s what he had to say about it:

“It’s an amazing feeling and getting a well-done job. Me scoring goals, I was really happy to get my first goal for PSG and first goal in this competition. We’re going to Singapore with our head on our shoulders. We’re going to be really humble and keep playing.”

Klopp talks Pulisic, Liverpool’s spending

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Jurgen Klopp admits he’d love to work with Christian Pulisic again, but isn’t going to butt his nose into Borussia Dortmund’s business.

Speaking ahead of Liverpool’s International Champions Cup match against BVB, Klopp was asked about his interest in the American teenager.

[ MORE: Josef Martinez bags 3 more ]

Klopp was quick to point out that Pulisic is under contract to Dortmund and not for sale, as much as he’s aware.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“He had not his best season last year but he was still a decisive player but it’s important in that age group that there’s no rush. He still has 14 or 15 years to play in his career and that’s good and he wants to be the best Pulisic he can be. For this, there is still space for development.

“If – at one point – he will join us, I don’t know. I like him, it’s not that that could be the problem, but we respect contracts still and there’s no market I know about at the moment. We did our business and Dortmund are doing theirs. All good.”

Also all good? Klopp’s evolution on spending after blasting other Premier League clubs for big money buys in the past.

Klopp said he would quit football if transfer fees like Paul Pogba‘s became the norm. Well, they have, and no club has spent as much money as the Reds this summer.

“That’s the problem these days, hey? Whatever b.s. you say, nobody will forget it. On the other side, it’s still kind of true. I couldn’t have imagined since then that the world would change like it has. Two years ago £100million was a crazy number. Since then the world has changed completely.”

He said he’s going to do whatever it takes to make Liverpool successful, and Klopp now has the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and most expensive defender in his squad.