Coach’s quandry: Horvath or Steffen in goal for US?

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Invisible for much of World Cup qualifying, Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath could have a key role in the final stretch.

Both have been backups with English clubs for much of the season, and Steffen picked over Horvath to be in goal at Estadio Azteca on Thursday night when the United States opened the final qualifying window against Mexico.

Both made big saves in Sunday’s FA Cup quarterfinals: Horvath came off his line to bat away Roberto Firmino’s chip attempt in Nottingham Forest’s 1-0 loss to visiting Liverpool, and Steffen got down to block Ché Adams’ point-blank shot as Manchester City won 4-1 at Southampton.

“Of course, it carries over for confidence,” Steffen said Wednesday. “It gives you confidence, and it gives coaches confidence they can trust you back there.”

Goalkeepers have been the backbone of the American team for decades: Tony Meola in 1990 and 1994 was followed by Kasey Keller in 1998, Brad Friedel in 2002, Keller again in 2006 and Tim Howard in 2010 and ’14.

Steffen was viewed as the top American goalkeeper going into qualifying, but was sidelined by back spasms last September. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter picked New England’s Matt Turner to start over Horvath in the first three qualifiers, and Turner was in goal for the first five before Steffen supplanted him partly because of superior footwork.

When back spasms sidelined Steffen again, Turner took over for the three winter matches and then finalized a high-profile transfer to Arsenal this summer. But Turner injured an ankle during a preseason scrimmage with the Revolution on Feb. 9 and remains out.

After not getting into a game for five months, Horvath has started seven straight club matches. He is back on the roster for the first time since September and is joined by New York City’s Sean Johnson, who has been with the U.S. for all five windows but has not made an international appearance in two years.

If Horvath plays in the next week, it would be the first time three goalkeepers appeared for the U.S. in a qualifying cycle since Marcus Hahnemann started instead of Keller or Howard at Guatemala in September 2005, four days after the Americans clinched a berth.

“We’re looking at games. We’re looking at what type of services we’re going to face, what type of shots we’re going to face, what goalie can play out of the back better,” Berhalter said. “It’s not an easy decision. I think they’re both playing well.”

Left back Antonee Robinson thinks their styles and abilities are similar.

“They’re both excellent shot stoppers and they’re both comfortable playing out” from the back, he said. “The strategy for us doesn’t really change with which one of them is playing in goal.”

Horvath, a 26-year-old from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, joined Norway’s Molde in 2013. He moved to Belgium’s Club Brugge in January 2017, gaining Champions League and Europa League experience, and to Forest in England’s second tier last summer.

He was limited to three appearances in the first six months this season, then caught his break when Brice Samba got a red card against Stoke on Feb. 12, and with it a three-match suspension.

“You never know what’s going to happen. You’ve got to be ready for anything,” Horvath said. “You go in and do the gym work before training, the extra laps. It was nice to know that it was three guaranteed games, and my mentality going into that was let’s see where it takes us.”

Horvath filled in for a win and two draws. He was watching video with goalkeeper coach Danny Alcock a day or two before the FA Cup match against Huddersfield on March 3 when he was told head coach Steve Cooper was leaving him in.

Horvath has started seven straight matches, including five in the League Championship.

“I’m very grateful, and I’ll just continue what I’m doing,” Horvath said.

Steffen, a native of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, who turns 27 on April 2, played two seasons with the University of Maryland, then signed with Germany’s Freiburg in January 2014. He didn’t get into a first team match and joined Berhalter’s Columbus Crew in July 2016.

After gaining the starting job the following year, Steffen signed with Manchester City in 2019. He was loaned to Fortuna Düsseldorf and started the first 17 Bundesliga games before a season-ending knee injury.

He has been with City since the start of the 2020-21 season, serving as a backup to Brazil’s Ederson. He’s played this season in five cup games but just one Premier League and one Champions League, sidelined by the back spasms and then a shoulder injury sustained during training, Last weekend’s match was his first since Feb. 5.

Back in June, Steffen started the CONCACAF Nations League final against Mexico in Denver but had to leave during the second half after injuring his left knee when coming off his line in a routine manner. With about 20 family and friends at the match, Horvath saved Andrés Guardado’s penalty kick in the 124th minute, and the U.S. won 3-2.

“To have an experience like that that you can fall back on and remember how it went and what you did, helps for any game for the future,” Horvath said.

Bypassed by Berhalter in October, November and January, he stayed up late in England to stream most of the U.S. qualifiers.

“I watched with pride, because I want the boys to be there,” Horvath said. “I want us to qualify for the World Cup.”

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