Zack Steffen’s Heroics Vault Columbus Crew SC to Eastern Conference Semis

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Zack Steffen made his case to be part of the USMNT player pool moving forward.

The 22-year-old goalkeeper made six saves in regulation and a further two in the ensuing extra time period as Columbus Crew SC and Atlanta United played to a scoreless tie after 120 minutes. He then completely outplayed his Atlanta counterpart Brad Guzan in the penalty shootout as the Black and Gold pulled off an upset of the Five Stripes to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Zack Steffen’s Heroics Vault Columbus Crew SC to Eastern Conference Semis

Lineups

Gregg Berhalter made two changes to the starting XI that drew New York City FC 2-2 on Decision Day. Hector Jimenez returned at left back in place of Jukka Raitala while Artur replaced Mohammed Abu in the box-to-box midfield role. Both players were in the lineup during the previous two games in which Columbus triumphed by a combined score of 3-0.

After using an experimental formation in the regular season finale against Toronto FC, Atlanta manager Tata Martino reverted to the usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 shape against Columbus. Jeff Larentowicz stepped in at centerback, replacing Michael Parkhurst who took a big of a knock in the second half of Sunday’s game. The veteran defender who spent the previous three seasons with Crew SC started the game on the bench.

Perhaps the biggest change to Atlanta’s initial lineup from recent weeks was the return of Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan playmaker made his return to the starting XI for the first time since September 24th against Montreal. He played 17 minutes that game before exiting with a hamstring injury. On Sunday, he entered the game as a second half sub and provided an assist on Josef Martinez’s 74th minute goal.

First Half

11 minutes in and Almiron showed how dangerous he can be when opposing defenses don’t close him down. After Atlanta’s vaunted press forced a midfield turnover, it was off to the races towards the Columbus net. Almiron found himself unchallenged from about 25 yards away from goal and decided to have at it. His left-footed curler nearly beat Zack Steffen but he got a slight touch on the ball, forcing it to glance off the cross bar.

Crew SC found themselves on the back foot for most of the first half. But they were opportunistic on the attack against an Atlanta team controlling possession during the opening 45. In the 31st minute, they had their most clear-cut chance. With Columbus dribbling towards goal, Federico Higuain slotted a through ball to Pedro Santos. But the team’s newest designated player didn’t hit a convincing shot, enabling Brad Guzan to deflect it away.

The visiting side thought they had the breakthrough in the 40th minute. This time, it was Santos who collected a diagonal ball from Justin Meram and brought the ball into the box. He then squared it to Ola Kamara who one-timed it past Guzan for what appeared to be a 1-0. But the linesman put his flag up for offside. In retrospect, that turned out to be an incorrect call.

Upon further review, Santos appeared to be a few yards onside when Meram made the initial pass. And even afterwards, Kamara put himself into a position that precluded an offside call getting levied against him. As long as he’s behind the ball while past the last defender, he’s onside. And as the visual below points out, he did exactly that. But since referee Allen Chapman blew his whistle before the ball went into the net, VAR couldn’t be used to review this.

Second Half

With Meram nursing a foot injury, his ability to go the entirety of the game was a question mark. It received an answer when Kekuta Manneh replaced the dynamic winger in the 59th minute. Manneh’s speed on the ball in 1v1 situations is certainly a dangerous weapon to have running at tired legs late in the game. And he nearly played the super sub role to perfection midway through the second half.

In the 69th minute, Manneh came towards goal unimpeded and had plenty of space just outside the box. He unleashed a shot that beat Guzan but came crashing off the cross bar. Santos had an opportunity to potentially put in a rebound but was unable to get it at goal. After Almiron’s attempt in the first half, that turned out to be the second time a potential goal was denied by the woodwork.

It wouldn’t be the last. A mere three minutes after Manneh’s attempt, Martinez nearly put the Five Stripes ahead. He came onto a cross from the right that center back Jonathan Mensah had issues dealing with. But once again, the iron was unkind as his shot glanced off the left post.

Extra Time/Penalty Shootout

The two sides remained knotted up at 0 after 90 minutes, precipitating 30 more minutes of action. And both teams had their opportunities to escape with a win and avoid a penalty shootout. Almiron and Larentowicz’s shots in the 107th and 114th minutes respectively generated saves out of Steffen. And Crew SC right back Harrison Afful had multiple chances to give his team a winner.

The first one came right at the conclusion of the first 15 minute extra time period. He collected an attempted Atlanta clearance, hitting it on the volley towards goal. The ball dipped downward but not enough to result in a goal. But in keeping with a significant theme from the game, Afful’s attempt made contact with the woodwork, this time hitting the upper part of the cross bar.

Afful’s impact on this game wouldn’t be over. With just two minutes left in the second extra stanza, he made a run towards goal from the right hand side in trying to connect with a pinpoint Wil Trapp lob pass over the top of the defense. He beat Guzan to it, heading it towards goal. With it trickling towards the goal line, it took a hurried effort from Parkhurst, a 68th minute substitute, to keep it from going in.

In the end, 120 minutes wasn’t enough. The two sides went to penalties and Steffen made his presence felt almost immediately. His first save was a sprawling denial of Julian Gressel to his right made all the more impressive considering the ball was behind him before he parried it away. He then denied Leandro Gonzalez Pirez on the next kick.

After Jeff Larentowicz hit the post on Atlanta’s fourth effort in the shootout, all Columbus needed was Adam Jahn to put them through to the next round. Jahn came on in the 120th minute and heading into this game made one start all year. But against Guzan, a USMNT regular with Premier League experience before joining Atlanta, Jahn made it look easy. He shot to the right. Guzan guessed left.

And with that, a team playing for a beleaguered fanbase enduring more than it should kept itself alive for MLS Cup glory. At the same time, a young goalkeeper made his case for inclusion into the next generation of USMNT players at the position, supplanting players such as Guzan who are clearly over the hill.

With the exhilarating win, Columbus advances to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third time in Berhalter’s four-year tenure as head coach. They lost to New England that round in 2014 before upending Montreal a year later en route to an MLS Cup appearance. This time around, they face second-seeded New York City FC. The first leg takes place at MAPFRE Stadium on Tuesday, October 31, with kickoff taking place at 8 PM ET (ESPN).

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