TORONTO — It was a quick word, nothing more, really. A simple “congrats” from one player to another – one keeper to another, in particular. From Zack Steffen to Alex Bono, two guys in their early 20s who could very well be seeing a great deal of each other in big games, possibly even as teammates.
The U.S. men’s national soccer team is a program in transition everywhere and that includes goal, where the Columbus Crew’s Steffen and Toronto FC’s Bono have very much put themselves in the discussion. There is a myriad storylines between these two MLS Eastern Conference finalists, including ones not yet written. Will TFC get vindication in the MLS Cup? Will the Crew be relocating? That’s to be decided but what is already clear is that few players have used these MLS playoffs as a springboard to ascendency in the manner of Steffen and Bono.
The overwhelming sentiment in the Crew’s locker-room after Wednesday’s 1-0 loss and elimination by TFC was one of opportunity lost, a sense that they were this close to beating a club that is considered one of if not the best in MLS history. But Steffen, whose save on a Victor Vazquez penalty kick sent shivers around BMO Field – it was Steffen’s fourth save from the spot this season, including one off Jozy Altidore in March, and he stopped four of six penalties during the playoffs including shootouts – found time to laugh a little when he was asked if he would need to get used to seeing more of his opposite number with TFC.
“I just said ‘congrats’ really quickly,” said Steffen, a 22-year-old University of Maryland product who has appeared in 30 matches for the U.S. under-19, 20 and 23 teams. “He’s a great guy and a good goalie who deserves nothing but the best. He works hard … he’s a friend, and that’s one of the really cool things about this profession; you grow up playing against guys and you follow their path and their careers while you have your own career.”
Steffen’s stop on Vazquez was the highlight of an effective first half by the Crew, even though Vazquez looked oddly tentative on the attempt. It was simple, really, for Steffen.
“You got to hold your ground for as long as possible,” he said. “You don’t want to go early. If he sees me move early, he’ll go to other side.
“We came out pretty hot,” Steffen said. “We were kind of flying, and it was a fun first 15 or 20 minutes, with their fans and the way we were playing and moving the ball.”
Given Columbus’ decision to clog up the middle of the field and essentially dare TFC to work down the flanks – a strategy that really did eliminate Sebastian Giovinco, Altidore and Vazquez for most of the game – it stood to reason that TFC would need to rely in patience and a cutting finish to make the most of limited opportunities. And they did just that on Altidore’s goal.
“The goal comes out of a play we should make,” said Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter. “Not necessarily from excellent play but more from a mistake by us.”
All three key TFC offensive players touched the ball either in or at the top of box on the goal, with a slick interchange between Vazquez and a hobbling Altidore the crowning touch. “This game is about the small moments,” said Berhalter. “Give them (TFC) credit for taking advantage of it.”
“They played a good combination at the top of the box and Jozy got free … I think we lacked communication at the moment and kind of lost our compactness,” said Steffen, who chose the path often followed by U.S. national team players: go from an MLS academy (in this case the Philadelphia Union) to college, and then to Germany – where the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga have served as finishing schools for many an American player.
Steffen’s experience at Freiburg was difficult, however. He was alone in a smallish city and never advanced past being a third-choice goalkeeper before throwing in his lot in MLS.
Seems like a pretty good call, in hindsight.
“Zack … he’s done that all year for us,” said defender Josh Williams. Added captain Wil Trapp: “Look, we were inches away from scoring the tying goal [in the 88th minute] and we give up one chance and they score … Zack makes a huge play on the penalty … I mean, it’s a game of inches,” Trapp said, chuckling ruefully.
“You play all year for three inches,” he continued. “The ball doesn’t go under Ola’s foot … we’re signing a different tune. It’s one chance, they have quality, and they finished their chance. That’s the way the game goes, right? It’s a cruel game … and they (TFC) will punish you.”
Before the game, TFC head coach Greg Vanney spoke to FOX Sports crew of Alexi Lalas and Landon Donovan. He remarked about how Altidore and Michael Bradley processed the USA’s shock elimination from the World Cup in different ways. Bradley has used it and the dismaying treatment he has received from U.S. fans as motivation. Altidore – who set an MLS record last post-season with goals in five consecutive matches – has brooded. Perhaps Wednesday’s goal, his first of this post-season, augers well, then. And who knows? Maybe Bono is ready to play the hero if this final goes to penalties. Wouldn’t that give him and Steffen something to talk about this off-season?