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Young goalkeepers ready to take reins on U.S. men's soccer team

Just once in the last decade has someone other than Tim Howard, Brad Guzan or Nick Rimando started more than twice in goal for the U.S. national team in the same year.

That streak could be broken as early as Friday, should Zack Steffen be in the lineup for the team’s friendly with Brazil at MetLife Stadium.

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“It’s motivation to go out there and push yourself,” Steffen said. “We have a long road ahead of us and every spot is open.”

When the U.S. failed to earn a berth in this summer’s World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation decided to begin rebuilding the team from scratch. Veterans such as Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley and the recently retired Clint Dempsey — each of whom has played at least 110 games for the national team — haven’t been called up since the end of qualifying last fall.

Interim coach Dave Sarachan has been holding open auditions at every position. And nowhere is the competition as noteworthy as it is in goal, where the U.S. hasn’t seen a new starter since 2007, when Howard replaced Kasey Keller and went on to set national team records with 121 appearances and 62 wins.

“We have a good core of young goalkeepers. The margin is very thin,” Sarachan said before training Wednesday. “But they’re young and they need experience. They sense an opportunity.”

The leading candidate is Steffen, who has made three appearances this year. He shut out Paraguay in March in his first international start, then made seven saves in a 1-1 tie with future champion France less than a week before the World Cup kicked off.

“It’s tough being a goalkeeper,” said Steffen, 23. “It’s a lot different than a field player with your age. When goalkeepers get to their prime it’s later than field players. So it’s a process. I know that and I’m OK with that.”

Although Steffen is still young, he’s been working toward this moment for much of his life. He recalls being 5 or 6 when he had his first club tryout, and the situation so terrified him that he ran back to his mother. Even after he made the team, Stefanie Steffen remembers her son crying before games and having to be coaxed out of the car with promises of ice cream.

Columbus Crew's goalkeeper Zack Steffen sets his defense during a corner kick against New York City FC.
Columbus Crew's goalkeeper Zack Steffen sets his defense during a corner kick against New York City FC. (Andres Kudacki / Associated Press)

Six years later, he got his first call-up to a youth national team. He has played for the under-18, under-20 and under-23 teams, starting for the U.S. in the U-20 World Cup in 2015 before winning the No. 1 job for the Columbus Crew of the MLS at the start of last season.

His chief competition in this camp may come from Alex Bono, who was not called on to make a save as the U.S. blanked Bolivia in his national-team debut in May.

“Playing for the U.S. national team and being able to wear the crest is the highest honor that I could have as a player, said Bono, 24, whose 10 shutouts for Toronto last season was second-best in MLS. “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity.”

Ethan Horvath was the most experienced of the camp’s keepers coming into the year, having started single games in 2017 and 2016.

It’s unlikely Howard, 39, will compete for the national team job again. However, it’s probable that Guzan, 33, whose 1.15 goals-against average for league-leading Atlanta United is among the best in MLS, will be back.

So will other veterans, Sarachan said. However, the focus is on the new players for now.

“I don’t have a road map as to the exact time when it makes the most sense,” he said of expanding the roster. “Down the line we’ll address that issue. Right now it’s ‘let’s get this group going.’ ”

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Bono said he is excited by the challenges ahead.

“We’re getting geared up for the next [World Cup] cycle, and we get to be the ones to kind of pave the way.” he said. “The competition is obviously healthy. It brings the best out of one another.”

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