Ask Chicago Fire goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland about where his current focus lies, and he doesn’t hesitate.
“The biggest thing is decisions.”
The 25-year-old, currently on loan with Fire USL League One affiliate Lansing Ignite, has had a summer full of decisions pay dividends toward his development since joining the Michigan side in mid-May. First and foremost, the decision to fully immerse himself in the opportunity helped set the table for how he now operates while on loan.
“To earn trust here or anywhere in the league, you need experience,” Cleveland said. “You need to prove yourself. (The coaching staff) said, ‘This is your opportunity to do that.’ So I went there with the mindset of giving everything I have for the game. When I’m there, that’s my team.”
Cleveland joined up with a Lansing side just beginning its inaugural season in USL League One, tasked with earning his way into a lineup that had already played seven games together. Having appeared five times for the Fire since being selected in the second round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, he needed to work his way into head coach Nate Miller's plans and earn minutes.
Going back to his collegiate playing days, Cleveland's decision to transfer to an established Louisville side in 2016 after four years at Dartmouth served as a reference for his transition into another new locker room.
“You step in, you’re there for three months with some guys that have been there for four years, but the reality is you’re a goalkeeper,” Cleveland said. “It’s a leadership position. You just need to show your confidence and then give everybody else confidence, and then accept whatever leadership role they give you.”
Cleveland’s influence since his arrival has been tangible. After this past weekend’s 3-0 win over Orlando City B -- his sixth clean sheet of the season -- Lansing sit in second place in the USL League One standings with six regular season matches remaining. In Cleveland's 15 appearances for the club since his debut on May 18, Lansing have only lost twice.
Amid his post-match write-up from Saturday’s win against Orlando, Phil Friend of the Lansing State Journal went as far as alluding that Cleveland may be the team’s most valuable player.
“What I think that he has done is stabilized the defensive back line,” Friend told Chicago-Fire.com. “He had a stretch where it was four clean sheets in five games, and he’s had back-to-back clean sheets now. The way he helps lead the team from his position has been a stabilizing force. It’s part of the reason why they’ve jumped all the way up from eighth to second in the league standings.”
Photo credit: Lansing Ignite FC
The league has taken notice as well. Cleveland was named USL League One’s Player of the Month for June -- his first full month with the team -- after picking up three clean sheets across the team’s six matches.
“It’s obviously good to get recognition, but it was honestly a team award,” Cleveland said. “The defense, I was there when I needed to be, but I didn’t have to do that much. The less times I’m touching the ball, that means the communication and organization in front of me are good, and the defenders are playing well. We’re a possession-oriented team, so we keep the ball well and win it back right away. That makes my job easier.”
More recently, Cleveland was named to the USL League One Team of the Week on Tuesday following his performance against Orlando on the weekend, a sign of on-going progression in regards to his decision-making on the field. He continues to gain confidence as he racks up minutes in net for Lansing.
“In practice, you can never replicate a game,” he said. “You can always catch a ball, you can always save a ball, but the decisions that you have to make are split-second in a game and there’s no pressure like that in practice. That’s why the experience of games is so important. Whether the ball is at my feet in the run of play or it’s a through-ball that I need to come out for, it’s making those decisions faster and making the right decision. It’s definitely gotten better for me, and I think it’s still improving.”
The remaining challenge for Cleveland and Lansing will be maintaining their spot in the standings despite having played three or four more games than most other teams in the league. With other squads having the benefit of games in hand, Cleveland and Co. need to keep the positive results coming to secure a spot in the four-team USL League One playoffs. Fortunately, four of the club’s final six matches are at Lansing’s Cooley Law School Stadium, where they’ve gone unbeaten since Cleveland joined the team.
“We definitely control our spot in the playoffs,” he said. “Obviously other teams are going to gain points on us, but we know that if we take care of what we need to take care of, then we’ll be where we want to be. What more can you ask for?”
Cleveland and Lansing Ignite next take on Orlando City B again in league play, this time in Florida at Montverde Academy on Friday, Aug. 16.