- Zack Steffen made two saves in a penalty shootout and stood on his head in regulation, as the Columbus Crew ousted expansion sensation Atlanta United from the MLS playoffs on penalties.
Given everything that's transpired over the last week or so, it's only appropriate that a goalkeeper saved the Crew.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen made two saves in a penalty shootout and was helped by the post as well, and the Columbus Crew withstood Atlanta United's attack and an MLS-playoff-record crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to prevail 3-1 in penalties after a 0-0 draw and advance in the MLS playoffs.
Goals were promised, but the goalkeepers were the stars.
Two of MLS's most talented attacks went head-to-head and did not disappoint, playing to as thrilling of a 0-0 draw as you'll see. Steffen and Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan ensured it stayed scoreless, and each came up big in the shootout. Steffen stuffed Julian Gressel on a sensational diving save to open the round and followed that up by holding his ground for Leandro Gonzalez Pirez's straightforward attempt. After conceding once, he was helped by the post, as Jeff Larentowicz clanged his chance off the woodwork on Atlanta's fourth try. Guzan conceded on Gonzalo Higuain's Panenka but saved a Kekuta Manneh chance before conceding to rookie Niko Hansen and reserve forward Adam Jahn, sending over 67,000 home stunned at the conclusion of what had otherwise been a remarkable expansion season.
Columbus, which entered the playoffs unbeaten in 10 matches (6-0-4), will brace for a conference semifinal series against New York City FC–including a home game in the first leg that is sure to be a spectacle for reasons both on and off the field. On it, NYCFC was 1-0-1 in their two matchups, winning 3-2 in late April before playing a riveting 2-2 draw in the regular-season finale–with the draw preserved by Steffen's PK save on David Villa.
Here are three thoughts on Steffen's latest heroics and an MLS playoff classic:
COLUMBUS'S HOME GAME IS MUST-SEE MATERIAL
Wil Trapp told reporters prior to the playoff opener that MLS doesn't want to see Columbus succeed in the playoffs, with the backdrop being everything surrounding the club and owner Anthony Precourt potentially uprooting it to Austin, Texas. Well, if that's case, then this renegade team and its passionate fan base has all the motivational material it needs, and the first leg vs. NYCFC, which Columbus will host, will be must-see theater.
There's vitriol for ownership and the league. There's passion for a team that is clearly playing its tail off with a point to prove. There's a drive to save the club and keep it where it's been since MLS's inaugural year. Within that, there's certainly a conflict, but no Crew diehard is going to settle for anything less than giving his or her all in the stands on this rare confluence of storylines.
Columbus finished with more points than any team in the Western Conference. If it reaches MLS Cup, it'll host the title game. Just imagine what the scene would be like then.
GOALKEEPERS, WOODWORK PREVENT A GOALFEST
Two dynamic attacks were subdued, but not due to a lack of chances. Guzan and Steffen were both on their games–and both received their fair share of help from the frame behind them as well.
Steffen got a fingertip to Miguel Almiron's blast that hit the bar in the 11th minute, then swatted Chris McCann's rare long-range blast over the bar nine minutes later. In the second half, his flying save prevented Pirez's header from opening the scoring in the 66th minute.
Seven minutes later was saved by the post after Josef Martinez's first-time effort had him beat. He stayed in the zone late through regulation, with Tito Villalba through after a turnover, only to have his close-range chance denied by the 22-year-old.
Guzan, meanwhile, raced off his line to deny Pedro Santos around the half-hour mark after Higuain played him through with a perfect ball. He was thankful for the crossbar in the 69th minute, when substitute Manneh hit the bar from 18 yards out (he also robbed Ola Kamara on a sensational reaction stop by the near post in the 79th, though it didn't matter, with Manneh, who provided the service, offside) and again at the end of the first half of extra time, when Harrison Afful's rip curled off the bar as well.
Guzan was also helped by former Crew captain Michael Parkhurst, who robbed his former team in the 119th minute with a goal-line clearance off Afful's header, after Guzan had raced off his line only to be beaten.
This was as entertaining as a low-scoring game as you'll see in MLS–and maybe anywhere else.
Perhaps extra time and PKs wouldn't have been necessary if not for a little controversy late in the first half.
Implementing Video Assistant Referees will surely come with some kinks, and the Crew learned that the hard way. Justin Meram had sprayed a pass wide for Santos on the right wing, with Kamara offside by yards but not an active part of the play. Nevertheless, the flag went up–Santos was onside–and Kamara's ensuing goal after Santos's cross was nullified. Had the whistle not been blown and the play been allowed to continue, VAR could have been used to check whether the play was offside or not–and Kamara would have had his goal. With the whistle blown and play restarted by Guzan, that element went out the door.
Columbus has enough going against it these days. It didn't need faulty refereeing as well.
Making matters worse, Columbus was nearly on the flip side of that again mere moments into the second half. With the assistant referee's flag up on Atlanta, the head official let play go on, only for Almiron to put a chance wide of the mark, and had Almiron scored, then VAR could have been used to determine whether it should have counted. The lack of consistency is understandably maddening for all involved.