Steffen, Crew SC save themselves, advance past Atlanta in MLS Playoffs

Take nothing away from the fan base or the escalating momentum of support that has gotten behind the Black and Gold, but Columbus Crew SC saved themselves Thursday night in Georgia.

After 120 scoreless minutes, 22-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffen stifled Julian Gressel and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, while Adam Jahn was converted the winning shot in a 3-1 shootout victory that advanced Columbus past Atlanta United and into the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals.

“The boys did their job for 120 minutes so it was time to do my job,” Steffen said. “We had a gameplan and we stuck to it…we got it done.”

Jeff Larentowicz’s take from the spot also went off the left bar, while Federico Higuain and Niko Hansen both made good on their kicks to propel Crew SC. 

“The best part was the will to win,” Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters after the game. “It was a tough game. We didn’t play a perfect game, and they just kept going and battling, through any little mistake. We hung in there and showed good composure. One of the messages before the game was ‘play in the moment,’ stick to the moment and we’ll be okay. And they certainly did that.”

After a season finale “Decision Day” that marked the most goals in MLS history for a single day, a nil-nil match after both halves of regular and extra time wasn’t without its share of excitement. Josef Martinez set up Miguel Almirón in the 11th minute for a left-footed bolt from almost 30 yards that splintered off the crossbar and Wil Trapp was in position to volley a clearance out of danger to eliminate a prime chance.

Crew SC did well to take the crowd out of the match by mitigating early opportunities for the league’s newest darlings. Almirón was responsible for five of the home side’s 23 shots, with eight on target. United also had eight set pieces, including a delivery that the Argentine defender Perez put a head to, requiring a reflexive diving save from Steffen midway through the second half.

Shortly after in the 68th minute, Columbus struck with one of its best attacks that saw Pedro Santos play a diagonal ball to Kekuta Manneh, who struck a shot from inside the edge of the 18-yard box off the bar. It forced Atlanta and U.S. international Brad Guzan into action, allowing for an unmarked follow-up by Santos that sailed wide right of the goal post that accounted for one of the visiting Crew’s 18 shots.

Columbus had the best scoring tries of extra time courtesy of Harrison Awful, first from a long shot that ricocheted off the crossbar, and later two minutes before penalties ensued, getting a header to a long ball that would have been a game-winner if not for a goal-line clearance by former Columbus defender Michael Parkhurst.

This year marks the 12th in club history Crew SC have reached the conference semifinals, and the third in the last four years. It couldn’t have come at a better time with the swirling storm surrounding the club following actions by owner Anthony Precourt, and a response from not only the Black and Gold’s supporters, but soccer fans throughout the country.

Steffen told ESPN after the game, “This is huge. This goes back to the city of Columbus. We’re ready for our home game.”

Berhalter echoed those sentiments in his own statement. 

“We want to do something for the fans of Columbus,” he said. “With that emotion involving soccer and the history the club has, we’d like to go out and keep winning for the fans.”

The first leg of Crew SC’s conference semifinals matchup with New York City FC will kick on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN) from MAPFRE Stadium. NYC FC took a 3-2 victory in Columbus back in April, and the teams drew level at 2-2 at Citi Field in the final match of the regular season. David Villa and Jack Harrison recorded a brace each in those meetings, while Crew talisman Ola Kamara notched a goal in each of the two previous games. 

“I think New York City is an excellent team, and it’s going to be a good series,” Berhalter said.