From Florida to Texas via England, Slovakia, Germany and Indiana, Zach Steinberger traveled far and worked hard as he sought to realize his dream of taking the field in an important game as a senior professional.
Last Saturday night at BBVA Compass Stadium, the midfielder seized his chance, producing a bustling substitute performance for the Dynamo in a tight contest with the Colorado Rapids.
For the 22-year-old California native, it was a “pinch-me” moment — but he quickly put aside the significance of the occasion and focused on the match. “It was truly kind of a daze for the first couple of seconds when I got on the field, and it was just like a whole life’s worth of work just coming into a couple of moments, then I finally pulled my head out of the clouds and got settled into the game and it was a pretty incredible first 22 minutes,” he told HoustonDynamo.com.
While Steinberger tried to keep his cool on the field, his family, visiting from Louisville, Kentucky, went wild in the stands when he replaced Ricardo Clark in the 69th minute of the 0-0 draw and made sure to capture the proud moment when he crossed the white line.
“My family was actually here. Both my sisters, my mom and my dad made it out, so I was really happy. Obviously they’ve been as much a part of my journey through soccer as I have,” he said. “They showed me some videos of me when I was coming on, my mom was just going crazy, screaming, I think she scared probably the entire section! But that was a pretty awesome experience.”
Steinberger had a successful four-year college career at Butler University in Indianapolis after starting his quest to become a professional at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Then, aged 16, he crossed the pond and played in former English Premier League club Middlesbrough’s youth academy. After that spell he continued his development at teams in Germany and Slovakia before returning to America. The Dynamo picked Steinberger in the first round, eighth overall, of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
“My reference points are Germany, Slovakia and England and I would say the facilities here are second to none, the only thing comparable in my playing experience in Europe was Middlesbrough. But style of play, the quality of players, it’s all very comparable. I would say it’s right up there with the best,” he said.
Head coach Owen Coyle believes that moving overseas can be a valuable experience for young players. “I think he’s had that soccer education, I think that helps anybody regardless of what country you [visit]. If you’re an English lad, experiencing some European flavor or coming to America, you learn different cultures, I think that can only help. Zach’s benefited from that but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s got a lot to learn,” said Coyle, who is preparing the side for Saturday’s road game against the Seattle Sounders (9 p.m. CT, ROOT SPORTS).
“He did well. Same as a lot of that young group — we’ve got really high hopes for them. What they’ve got to understand is that sometimes you have to have that patience as well, to know that when your chance comes about, that you’re in the best condition to [take it],” said Coyle, who had to cope with a number of absentees against Colorado and started another rookie, Rob Lovejoy, who was lively on the left side of midfield, earning post-game praise from captain Brad Davis for his energy and enthusiasm.
“The ones that stepped into the breach, they came in, they acquitted themselves well, they’ve got the fitness levels, and Zach was one of them. If he keeps listening and keeps learning — the thing with the kids coming in is that they’ve got a lot of great attributes but also they have a bit of rawness about them, so it’s just fine-tuning that, smoothing it up,” Coyle said. “They know that, they’re receptive to it, they’re open and willing to listen and learn. From a coaching perspective that’s a great thing.”
Steinberger recalled Coyle’s instructions as he prepared to enter the fray last Saturday. “He told me: ‘go out there and be disciplined, let the game come to you and do everything that you’ve been doing in training.' He’s given me the confidence to have a good rookie season so I just went out there and took that game plan, took that advice and tried to put it to use,” he said.
His MLS debut almost had a dream conclusion, as he fashioned a shooting chance from the edge of the box in the 88th minute but sent the ball wide of the target. “I had the exact same opportunity in training and I put it in the top corner … it’s a little unfortunate,” he said. The miss did nothing to dent his self-belief. “Next time when it falls to me I know I’ll be able to take my opportunity,” he said.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.