MIDDLESBROUGH, England -- Zack Steffen has had a strange 10 months. It started with a loan move from Manchester City to Middlesbrough and despite joining in July, his career there started with a winless run which lasted until early October. Then, in November, the goalkeeper got the devastating news that he would not be part of the United States squad for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
But now Steffen is back with the USMNT and is undisputed No. 1 at Middlesbrough, where he is a few games away from securing promotion from the Championship to the Premier League. The 28-year-old from Pennsylvania has had plenty of downs over the past year but his season could yet end on a significant high.
Middlesbrough were one point and one place above the relegation zone when Michael Carrick took over as manager in October. The former Manchester United midfielder has overseen a push to fourth, six points clear of fifth-placed Millwall, that has fans talking of a Premier League return for the first time since 2017.
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"You've got to dream," Steffen tells ESPN. "You've got to set goals and our goal is to get promoted in whatever way that happens. Football is crazy, life is crazy and I believe whatever will be, will be as long as you put in the hard work. As long as we keep focusing on training and each game, I think we can do it."
Middlesbrough have five games left, starting with a home clash against Norwich City on Friday (stream LIVE at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN+ in the U.S.). There are still enough points available to pip Sheffield United to the second automatic promotion spot behind Burnley, but it looks likely that Carrick's team will have to earn a place in the top division through the playoffs.
The Championship playoff final -- played at Wembley on May 27 -- is often branded "the most valuable game on earth" because of the Premier League riches on offer for the victor. If Middlesbrough win, it would be worth around £170 million, jumping to approximately £300m if they avoid relegation in their first year.
That Middlesbrough are in this position at all is remarkable given where they were when Carrick -- taking on his first managerial role after ending his playing career in 2018 -- took over when former boss Chris Wilder was sacked.
"He's very calm, and very clever and smart," says Steffen when asked about Carrick. "He's always bringing new exercises and drills into training. He makes things easy to understand and obviously he's very experienced, so he gets the respect immediately when he walks through the door.
"He brings lots of calmness, positivity and belief and he trusts us as well. He gives us tactics, but he'll also let us go out there and won't be screaming at us from the sideline where to play the ball. He trusts us with that and gives us confidence to go out there and get the job done. At the beginning of the season we struggled as a team, we struggled with leadership and guidance, and now we've found that it's been easier just to play, have fun and enjoy everything."
Steffen has already played 38 games this season -- more than in his previous two years combined, when he was mainly sat on the bench behind first-choice Ederson at Manchester City -- and hasn't missed one since mid-September, before Carrick was appointed.
"It's been a couple of years since I played consistently, week in, week out, so I think that at the beginning of the season, I struggled in some games and some moments," he added. "It's about adapting and getting used to things, getting used to new teammates and a new league.
"It's been great; definitely the right move for myself. Off the field, it's great and on the field, we're in a good spot although we've had a couple of tough results the last couple of games. The group of guys have been amazing, Michael and his staff have been amazing and just brought a lot of belief, confidence and passion into the club. Everyone has bought into it and that's exactly what you need."
Steffen's role in Middlesbrough's impressive form was rewarded with a USMNT recall for the games against El Salvador and Grenada in March. It was the first time he had been back with the team since he was told by former coach Gregg Berhalter that he would not be going to the World Cup.
He spent that time watching the tournament with family and friends, and dedicating time to his VOYCENOW Foundation -- a non-profit that unites athletes from all over the world to highlight and eradicate racial inequality in America -- but admits it was still hard to take.
Zack Steffen opens up about missing the World Cup with the USMNT after he wasn't selected by Gregg Berhalter.
"It was really tough," he says. "But I wanted to support the boys because the brotherhood we have is so special and that's something you don't really let anything get in the way of. It was tough to watch it with family and friends and not be there but that's football and that's life and everything happens for a reason."
Berhalter, Steffen's former coach at Columbus Crew, said the decision was "heart-breaking" but also hinted that his desire to have an undisputed No.1 in Arsenal's Matt Turner formed part of his thinking.
"I didn't hear about that until a couple of months later," Steffen says. "I heard someone say it but I thought it was a rumour. He and I have a long history and, yeah, I thought it was a little bit different than it was. That was a tough pill to swallow for sure but if that's the way it is then that's the way it is."
To his credit, Steffen didn't shy away from getting help to deal with the blow of missing out on a first World Cup appearance.
"In the past I would bottle things up but that's never a good thing to do so this time, I spoke about it to my family and my friends," he says. "I have a life coach I spoke with, and a therapist. By getting it all out there and getting your feelings off your chest, that helped. It still took some time to get over but in time it just makes you stronger and you can use it as motivation to keep working and keep moving."
It has worked and since receiving the dreaded phone call from Berhalter, the only way has been up for Steffen. He has helped Middlesbrough win 12 of their 19 games since the season restarted to sit on the verge of a Premier League return. His rollercoaster year is approaching its climax.