Steffen vs. Turner: The USMNT goalkeeper debate takes another turn

Quick
Hits
  • As Zack Steffen reportedly heads out on loan to get playing time away from Manchester City, it seems like the USMNT’s goalkeeper debate is about to get flipped on its head
  • If Steffen is playing regularly while Matt Turner sits on the bench at Arsenal, the race for the U.S.’s starting goalkeeper spot could look different in November
Zack Steffen #1 of the United States celebrates the win at the conclusion of the second half of a 2022 World Cup CONCACAF qualifying match against Mexico, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati. United States won against Mexico, 2-0.

Mexico At Usa 2022 World Cup Qualifier Nov 11

Wake up, USMNT fans, because your values are actively being tested. You, yes you, are going to have to decide just how much two years’ worth of arguments mean to you.


We are officially entering the simulation in which Zack Steffen is the goalkeeper playing regularly for his club, albeit at a lower level, and “Matty” Turner enters the season with his new, prestigious European team presumably as the back-up goalkeeper.

Before you enter into this conversation with a statement along the lines of “TURNER COULD BEAT OUT RAMSDALE IN THE PRESEASON,” first consider the fact that I do not care, and I am not inviting such an argument, and then move on unhindered with your life as I engage in a series of likely hypotheticals.

If Steffen does indeed move to Middlesbrough, it seems very likely he will take over as their starting goalkeeper, or at least be given every opportunity to claim the starting job as his own. And it seems equally likely that, despite Aaron Ramsdale’s disappointing back half of the 2021-22 season, he will still retain the starting position when the Premier League begins again.

All of this hypothetical goalkeeper maneuvering adds up to a simple truth: Turner is now where Steffen was over the past couple of years, and Steffen is in Turner’s shoes. 

The Switcheroo

The Steffen vs. Turner argument of the past several years has consisted of two parts. The first part is purely the perception of the style of play both bring to the field. Steffen is supposed to be better with his feet, while Turner is supposed to be more of a pure shot-stopper. The distinctions felt a bit ham-fisted and almost entirely reliant on the fact that “Pep bought Steffen, so he must be the U.S.’s sweeper keeper,” but I digress. 

The other part of the argument was probably the more contentious bit. What is more valuable, being with an elite club and training with and against some of the best players in the world? Or playing games?

For goalkeepers, the answer to that question is a little tricky. Conventional wisdom says playing in real matches consistently is paramount for field players, but the waters are murkier in net. Does it really matter that Steffen wasn’t playing games in any regular manner for Manchester City. No, was the confident assertion from many who just saw an American at Manchester City. Yes, the equally confident retort from several USMNT fans of an MLS persuasion. 

Therein lies the million dollar question: will it matter in six months if all of Turner’s game time comes in two cup matches against teams with names like Tiddlywinks Athletic, while Steffen is battling for the promotion playoff with ‘Boro?

It’s an epistemological conundrum for a fanbase that’s become rabid in its pursuit of being right and correct. 

Whether Arsenal signing Turner or City loaning Steffen out is a sign that you were right about the USMNT goalkeeping situation only goes so far. When you reach the endgame of actually playing in the World Cup, where truly nothing matters outside of your results, who do you really want between the sticks? And are you willing to go back on the arguments you may or may not have tossed out in favor of one U.S. goalie over the other?

The battle for the No. 1 doesn’t occur in a vacuum, of course, and there is more to the conversation than simply clubs and playing time. Like I just said, only results matter at the World Cup.

A goalkeeping hypothetical

But say, hypothetically speaking, Steffen helps lead Boro to promotion to the Premier League after locking down the starting position and is considered a vital cog in their success. Does that make him a better choice to play in net for the USMNT over Turner, if Turner has gone out and kept clean sheets against lesser opposition, with limited minutes?

For my money, I say yes. I do believe that consistent playing time over the last several years, while not the only factor in the Steffen vs. Turner argument, has played a significant role in Turner’s rise and my belief that he is the best goalkeeper the U.S. currently has in its pool. And I have to believe that there’s an easily imaginable world where losing that consistency of playing time in the run-up to the World Cup, while Steffen might finally find it once again, can turn that argument right around in my face. It’s a tricky mistress, this desire to be correct all the time. But them’s the breaks. 

Or course, none of this will matter very much when Gregg Berhalter rolls out the starting XI against England and we all see Sean Johnson’s name, ready to lead the United States to glory over our original geopolitical rival. But it’s all interesting to consider, nonetheless.