Knockout Round Road Warriors: Columbus Crew SC Triumph in Penalties for the Second Straight Year

Columbus Crew SC Triumph
COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 28: Federico Higuain #10 of Columbus Crew SC controls the ball as he runs down the pitch during the game between the Columbus Crew SC and the Minnesota United on October 28, 2018 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Washington, D.C. (November 1, 2018)Columbus Crew SC continues to defy expectations in the knockout round.

The Black and Gold survived a wild knockout round penalty shootout for the second time in as many years, knocking off D.C. United 3-2 in P.K.s after the game finished in a 2-2 draw after 120 minutes. Much like in 2017 when they knocked off Atlanta United, Columbus came into the game as a five-seed and needed a result on the road to advance.

Knockout Round Road Warriors: Columbus Crew SC Triumph in Penalties Once Again

Attacking winger Pedro Santos returned to the starting XI after he began the regular season finale against Minnesota United on the bench. Also reprising his role as a starter was center back Jonathan Mensah who was unavailable on Sunday due to yellow card accumulation. Gaston Sauro made his third consecutive start after having made just four during the entirety of 2018.

Both sides traded opportunities early on as they felt each other out. Columbus certainly wanted to contain summer signing Wayne Rooney as much as they could. But after conceding a foul around 20 minutes in, it gave the 33-year-old talisman a chance to make an impact.

From about 40 yards out, Rooney whipped in a cross off the set piece. It sailed past the goal but right to the feet of Luciano Acosta who was making a run down the left-hand side. After collecting the ball, he chipped it towards goal which forced Zack Steffen to make a play on it. But instead of collecting it, the ball skipped off his hands and right in front of goal. Center back Frederic Brillant promptly headed it in to give DC the lead in the 21st minute.

The tally was Brillant’s first of the season. He certainly picked the right game to get off the mark.

But Columbus, who were consistently generating chances despite going down, kept fighting. And in the 30th minute, the reward came via their maestro, Federico Higuain. He was the beneficiary of Justin Meram beating Paul Arriola down the left and squaring it into the middle of the box. It caused some panicked defending from DC and Pipa took full advantage with a poacher’s finish.

Among the many distinguishing characteristics of this game was its physicality. Referee Allen Chapman certainly found himself regularly blowing his whistle for foul calls. But at the same time, he was fairly reticent to brandish his yellow card. The only caution of the first half came when Higuain was slow to move back 10 yards for a free kick in the 45th minute.

That chippiness spilled over into the second stanza. It included an incident where D.C. attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta appeared to shove Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter as he was trying to retrieve the ball for a throw-in. Ultimately, despite the 21 fouls called, the only card that came out during regulation was the aforementioned caution to Higuain.

Extra Time / Penalty Shootout Drama

The two sides played a scoreless second half and the game subsequently went to 30 minutes of extra time. And in the 96th minute, Higuain put the visitors ahead. He initially sent a diagonal ball over to an overlapping Harrison Afful, then made a run into the box. Afful then whipped it in and Higuain redirected it with his head past Bill Hamid to give Crew SC a 2-1 lead.

D.C. needed a spark to salvage their playoff hopes. Earlier in the game, manager Ben Olsen attempted to take matters into his own hands when he subbed in Nick DeLeon for an injured Paul Arriola. Six years ago, DeLeon scored the series-clincher for D.C. in the second leg of the conference semifinals against the New York Red Bulls. And on Thursday, he initially looked to have been the hero once more.

In the 116th minute, another Rooney free kick from long-range came into the Crew SC box. Gyasi Zardes attempted to clear but, instead, it fell right to the feet of DeLeon. He made the most of the opportunity to tie the game, blasting it on the full volley past Steffen who really had no chance to save it. The equalizer sent the crowd of 20,600 into pandemonium.

As a result, a knockout round match involving a fifth-seeded Columbus team playing on the road needed spot kicks to determine a winner for the second straight year. And much like last year’s encounter with Atlanta United, Steffen stood on his head in the shootout, making two saves. But he didn’t even need to deal with DeLeon. His effort, the fifth and final of the shootout, sailed over the cross bar reminiscent of Roberto Baggio for Italy in the finals of the 1994 World Cup.

Takeaways

Pipa came to play this postseason: When healthy, Higuain is as good of a playmaker as there is in MLS. He proved it on Thursday with a magnificent brace that showcased the breadth of his skill set. For Crew SC to make a deep run in the playoffs, Zardes can’t be the only player to rely on for goals. It makes Higuain’s masterclass in D.C. a welcome development.

Allen Chapman let this game get out of hand: This was an extremely chippy game. In such a situation, it’s incumbent upon the referee to take control and admonish players to tone down the physicality in challenges. Obviously, showing yellows and, in some cases, red cards, is an option he/she possesses. But on Thursday, the only two cards Chapman showed were non-violent in nature. And it may have led to a potential long-term injury to Pedro Santos who was stretchered off during the extra period.

Zack Steffen came up big when he needed to: Steffen obviously made an egregious gaffe which led to D.C.’s first goal. But he atoned for the error big-time the rest of the way. DeLeon’s extra time equalizer certainly wasn’t his fault. And just like last season in Atlanta, he outshined the opposing goalkeeper in the shootout. With Crew SC facing a New York Red Bulls team which boasts an MLS goal-scoring legend in Bradley Wright-Phillips, he’ll need to continue demonstrating national team-level quality in net.

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