Zack Steffen (left) and Jimmy McLaughlin (right) returned to their roots at United Sports Training Center on December 30 to run a clinic for youth players in the area.
2018 was a banner year for both Zack Steffen and Jimmy McLaughlin. Steffen, a Downingtown native, made his U.S. Men's National Team debut and starred in goal on his way to being named U.S. Soccer Men's Player of the Year. He also produced another standout campaign for Columbus Crew SC in MLS, taking home goalkeeper of the year honors. Steffen recently finalized a move to English Premier League power Manchester City, a club he'll join next summer. McLaughlin, a Malvern native, continued his strong run with FC Cincinnati of the USL. The former Philadelphia Union player will make his return to MLS this year as Cincinnati makes the jump to the top league.
Steffen and McLaughlin, teammates at FC Delco in their youth and two players who participated in ODP, ran a youth clinic at United Sports Training Center in Downingtown on December 30. They each spoke to Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer about their participation in that clinic among other topics.
Zack Steffen explains proper positioning for crosses to a group of young goalkeepers as part of the youth clinic at United Sports.
You mentioned that you used to come out (to USTC) all the time because you lived close. What sort of things did you look to work on when you were kicking around with your friends or was it purely for fun?
Zack Steffen: It was mostly for fun. Obviously we came up here to play soccer and that in itself makes you better with practice. I wouldn’t really like to hop in goal too much. But I mean I would. We would do shooting drills, and I was actually the best shooter. But we would do shooting drills and play soccer golf, just random stuff that incorporates first touch and shooting and long balls, diving and stuff for me. It was good.
Can you give me one piece of goalkeeping that young goalkeepers maybe don’t think about or people who don’t really know the position don’t think about that is important?
ZS: That’s a tough question, because there are so many different aspects with goalkeeping. There’s crossing, there’s footwork, distribution, diving, handling, kicking…What people don’t focus on, I would say is positioning. If you’re in a good spot, you should be able to make the save most of the time.
A year ago at this time your career was almost in an entirely different spot considering all that transpired in 2018. This period of reflection, being December, how have you processed everything and what really stands out about 2018 that you’re going to take going forward?
ZS: It was a crazy year. I read this thing, I forget what it was on, a couple years ago. It said, “Look where you are right now, because in a year, you’ll be in a different place.” And it’s so true. 2018 was amazing. I mean the whole Man City thing is a dream come true. That’s number one. The (MLS) goalie of the year, the (U.S. Soccer Men’s) player of the year, that’s just icing on the cake. It goes down to hard work and dedication and mental toughness. But yeah it was a surreal year. Looking back on it, it’s crazy. I just want to go into 2019 back to Columbus fit and healthy and ready to start where I left off.
More reading -- Downingtown's Zack Steffen: The Next Great American Goalkeeper? (From Touchline | Summer 2018)
Jimmy McLaughlin walks clinic attendees through a drill meant to develop foot skills and shooting technique.
One of the things you talked about, and Zack talked about as well, was finding a really good fit professionally—you in Cincinnati, him in Columbus. What is it about the city and the franchise that made you comfortable there and succeed?
Jimmy McLaughlin: I think it’s a lot of different factors. Obviously, when I left from Philly, I was in MLS, and initially when I was in Cincinnati it was USL. So it was a drop down in level, which was good for me, because it gave me an opportunity to play every single minute. I think that’s the most important thing about finding a professional team. It’s different in professional sports, where you don’t really have the choice every single time of where you’re going and picking the right environment. But coming off four years of barely playing, just a few games, was really important for me to play games. I’ve had an incredible coaching staff the whole time in Cincinnati that has believed in me and has given me the trust to be a big player in the team, and that’s been immense for me. I really think, in some sense, it’s a timing thing. There’s a little bit of luck involved. But going to a brand new team, there was room for someone to step up and be a big player on the team. It worked out in my favor and has been incredible for my personal development.
You’re a really technical player, someone who has good foot skills. It’s not always easy to transfer that to young players in terms of coaching, so what kind of things do you like to emphasize to them as you’re giving instruction?
JM: I try to give them just a couple basic ideas to focus on, because I do think, yes, you can practice your foot skills and you need to be doing the little stuff on your own to improve on specific little moves and little turns and movements like that. But I do think the best way to actually cultivate those (skills) is in an environment with pressure, with real pressure and real defenders. So I try to give them a couple of ideas, and then I try to put them in an environment where there’s real defenders where they have to make decisions. I think that’s the best way to improve in that aspect, especially at a young age.
You made every stop you could make (on the way to the professional level), from regular club, high school, ODP, to academy to college. How did you know it was the right time to make the next step (in that process)?
JM: Honestly, you go by the flow. I was always trying to push myself and play at the highest possible level I could. Initially, my first year in ODP, I tried out for the team when it was two years above my birth age, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. I just wanted to challenge myself and give it an opportunity. I ended up making the team. But I think it’s moments like that where it’s maybe a little bit above your skill level, you give it a go and you find out that maybe you are capable of playing. That kind of was a catalyst for the rest of my growth as a youth player and kind of put me in a good position over the next few years. I mean, I don’t think you totally ever really know if you’re making the right decision, but you have to make the best choice you can with the information you have at the time. I would suggest always trying to play at the highest level you can.
What was your favorite thing about working with the kids today?
JM: I just love seeing their passion. It’s a blast. Every time I work with younger kids, I think you kind of come back to those childhood roots and you see that eagerness that they have and the enjoyment they have. I think that as you get older, and it starts getting more serious, and you start playing more games, and it’s more time consuming, it almost becomes more of, I don’t want to say job, but it becomes less about fun. I think that’s something that even at the professional level we forget sometimes. This is why I do play the game, because I love it and have fun with it. Being around these young kids with their youthfulness and excitement really excites me personally and brings my love for the game to a higher level.
You and Zack played on the same club team, and next month, there’s five eastern Pennsylvania players going to national team camp. What was your experience growing up in this area, because you have so many contemporaries in MLS, USL, that are playing? At what point did you reflect on it, and say, wow, that was really special?
JM: I would say probably once I went to MLS. I went relatively early. I was one of the first guys in my age group to go, after going to Colgate for a semester. I knew the talent and all these guys. You play with people from all over the country. I see the quality of all these guys I played with day in and day out, and you don’t think about it at the time. It’s just normal. You’re around it. And then slowly people start making it into the professional ranks, and you see guys doing incredibly well. I think that’s when I took a step back, especially with this most recent national team call-up. We actually play pickup soccer at YSC in the morning, a bunch of local pros. We usually have 20 guys play and five of the guys are going to the January camp. That was a special moment for all of us, because these are guys we’ve grown up with, guys that I’ve played with since we were just kids. Seeing them play at the highest level is inspiring not just for little kids and everyone growing up, but also for us other professionals who are striving to achieve the same thing. There’s really good role models and an incredible soccer history in eastern Pennsylvania, and I think it’s something that all the young kids should look up to.
More reading -- Interview with a Homegrown Player (From Touchline | Spring 2013)