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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.”

Cruzeiro relegated from Brazilian top flight for first time

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Brazilian side Cruzeiro was relegated from the top flight for the first time in the club’s 98-year history following a 2-0 defeat to Palmeiras on the final day of the season.

Cruzeiro required victory and a loss by Ceara at Botafogo to stay safely in the Brazilian Serie A, but neither came to pass.

Palmeiras midfielder Ze Rafael scored in the 58th minute to send the visitors on their way, with fellow midfielder Dudu finished things off in the 84th minute. Referees ushered the players off the field immediately after the conclusion of the match as Cruzeiro fans rioted in the Mineirao stadium, ripping out seats, setting off smoke bombs, and clashing with police.

Cruzeiro finished 17th in the 20-team table, three points back of Ceara in 16th. In the Brazilian top flight, the bottom four teams are relegated. CSA, Chapecoense, and Avai were also relegated. Cruzeiro had won the Brazilian Serie A as recently as 2013 and 2014, winning four titles in its history. They also have six Copa do Brasil titles, most recently winning the league cup in 2017 and 2018.

Flamengo ran away with the championship, finishing on 90 points, 16 points clear of second-placed Santos and third-placed Palmeiras who both finished level on 74 points. Palmeiras had challenged for the title, but fell off at the end of the season with a five-match winless run through November.

Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Two struggling London sides meet Monday when West Ham United hosts Arsenal (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The sides might’ve expected they’d be within close proximity at this point on the fixture list, but two wildly disappointing seasons means the three points between the Gunners and Irons comes with the former in 11th and the latter 16th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s been nine matches since Arsenal beat someone, 11 since it happened in the Premier League. West Ham hasn’t been much better, winning once in its last 10.

Freddie Ljungberg has yet to win as Arsenal interim boss, while West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini could see his current stint in London end without more results like the Nov. 30 win at Chelsea.

Monday versus Arsenal would qualify.


Injuries/suspensions

West Ham United: OUT —  Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid. QUESTIONABLE — Michail Antonio.

Arsenal: OUT — Dani Ceballos. QUESTIONABLE — Rob Holding.


Probable lineups

West Ham United: Martin; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Fredericks; Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Snodgrass, Haller.

Arsenal: Leno; Kolasinac, Sokratis, Luiz, Bellerin, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s Antonio sees an opportunity: “The only three teams that are really performing are Liverpool, Leicester and Man City. Everyone else is getting beaten, and it means we’ve had a missed opportunity so far this season. We started the season off brightly, the best start we’ve had for four years, but then we’ve had a slump. Everyone’s having a slump and this is our slump. Now it’s time for us to start turning up. We’ve been in this situation before and we know how to dig in and pull ourselves up again.”

Arsenal’s Ljungberg on setting targets: “I don’t think we should stop talking about the top four, but for us it’s about concentrating on what we’re doing here now and not look up, down, sideways. We just need to work on our own game and our own confidence.”


Prediction

Really, you wouldn’t want to predict anything from these sides right now besides goals. We’ll give an edge in desperation to the hosts and a 2-2 draw.

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.