The legend of Zack Steffen continues to grow.
For a second straight postseason, the Columbus Crew goalkeeper came up huge in a penalty kick shootout in the knockout round on the road, stopping a pair of PKs to lead his side by D.C. United and into the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals.
Nick DeLeon, whose sensational 115th-minute volley forced the spot kicks, booted his penalty over the bar to secure the 3-2 PK result, which followed a 2-2 draw. Federico Higuain's two goals followed Frederic Brillant's opener, and Higuain's 96th-minute header looked to give Columbus the win. But DeLeon's 20-yard strike gave D.C. temporary life at a raucous and sold-out Audi Field before the hosts' cruel fate was determined from 12 yards out.
It's Columbus moving on to face the New York Red Bulls in the next round, while D.C., which went unbeaten in its last 10 matches of the regular season to secure the fourth seed in the east after being in last place in the conference at one point, is done for the season.
Here are three thoughts on an intense match:
Steffen overcomes blunder, shows his PK mastery
Steffen was Columbus's playoff revelation last season, announcing his arrival with a penalty masterclass against Atlanta United in the knockout stage and eventually parlaying his form and success into the No. 1 role for the U.S. men's national team. Before he reminded all of why he reached that level, he also showed he's not immune to committing the occasional gaffe, though.
In the 21st minute, Luciano Acosta had lobbed in a hopeful–at best–cross from a tight angle, just dumping it into the mixer to see what would happen. Well, what happened was Steffen leaping to try and make a two-handed grab and instead mishandling it and leaving a bouncing ball at the goal mouth. Brillant took full advantage, putting his head into traffic to score in the empty net.
Steffen bounced back, though, making a fingertip save to deny Acosta a would-be sensational winner in the 90th minute. And in the shootout, he was rock solid. First, it was Wayne Rooney he stopped, diving to his right to set the tone.
He turned in his next save for the other half of D.C.'s star combo, Acosta, going the same way and coming up with the full-extension stop.
The aura around Steffen and PK shootouts is only growing, and his ability to bounce back after his earlier blunder showed the mark of a headstrong keeper, able to turn the page and move on to the next play.
Columbus bottles up Rooney, Acosta
All of the success that D.C. had over the last three months came largely through the unlikely Rooney-Acosta tandem, and it was clear that Crew coach Gregg Berhalter made a concerted effort to remove them from the equation Thursday night.
Every time they got on the ball, they were swarmed. The passing and shooting lanes shut down, and the one time that the Crew afforded the space for Rooney to lay off a pass to Acosta, it nearly resulted in the game-winner at the death (of regulation). You wonder if the wish to overcompensate played into the mental approach in PKs, where both had their kicks saved. The frustration was evident throughout the match, with Rooney barking at referee Allen Chapman and Acosta even shoving Berhalter while vying for a ball out of bounds in a rare physical exchange between player and opposing coach.
The result marks the end to a phenomenal first half season in D.C. for Rooney. He galvanized his team, engaged with a hungry and eager fan base and gave the D.C. front office the marquee performances it demanded when paying handsomely to make him the main attraction at Audi Field. He's one of five MVP finalists, and all eyes will be on whether he'll be able to replicate what he accomplished over a full campaign in 2019.
The postseason is belonging to Argentine studs
His first goal was quite opportunistic, with Justin Meram getting the better of makeshift right back Paul Arriola before sending in a hopeful cross into the danger area. D.C. failed to clear it, and the ball fell right to Higuain in front of an empty net. He finished, to pull Columbus level nine minutes after D.C. had seized momentum with Brillant's opener. His second was much more impressive, working a give-and-go with Harrison Afful, finding space and glancing a header by Bill Hamid for what appeared to be a game-winner.
If that wasn't enough, he buried his spot kick to open the round, starting Columbus off right. Higuain's season was relatively pedestrian by his standards (six goals, nine assists), but he showed he still has the clutch gene.
Of course, the "star Argentine" rule isn't a golden one, as Acosta couldn't replicate his regular-season magic, but the country's playmakers have largely risen to the occasion thus far.