Atlanta United FC 0(1) -Columbus Crew SC 0(3)
It is often said the star of the game rose the occasion. But in Thursday’s Eastern Conference knockout match, that phrase didn’t do justice to the performance authored by Columbus Crew SC keeper Zack Steffen.
On a night in which he was better than stellar, the 22-year-old shot stopper made eight saves and denied two more during the penalty phase to fuel his team to a 0-0 (3-1 PKs) victory over Atlanta United FC at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The spring-heeled keeper made a pair of acrobatic saves before the break then added two more to send the game to penalties. It was there that his performance became legendary after denied Julian Gressel and Leandro Pirez on Atlanta’s first two tries, setting up Adam Jahn to clinch the winning penalty.
With the victory, Columbus advances to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they’ll meet New York City FC on Tuesday at MAPFRE Stadium for the first leg.
Pitted against one of the most potent offenses in the league, few could have predicted that a goalkeeper would be the star on Thursday. At least not the one in between the sticks for the fifth-place Crew SC.
But there were early signs during the Conference knockout – which was played in front of a playoff record crowd 67,221 – that the stars would shine brightly on Steffen.
Eleven minutes into the match, Miguel Almiron blasted a shot from 30 yards that Steffen leapt to steer it off the bar, keeping the hosts off the board.
Not long after, Chris McCann slammed another one in Steffen’s direction and the Crew SC keeper was just as strong to deny in match that seemed to be tilting in Atlanta’s favor midway through the first half.
While Atlanta found itself flummoxed in the final third, Columbus nearly stole one in the 32nd minute. Federico Higuain, the celebrated tormentor of defenses across the league, put a through into the box for Pedro Santos, who was denied by a last ditch save by Brad Guzan.
Controversy erupted in the 41st minute when Santos found Ola Kamara, who sent it into the Atlanta net. But the flag went up right before even though replay showed Kamara was onside.
Nevertheless, the would-be goal didn’t affect the guests, and it most certainly did not prevent Steffen from building upon his first half showing.
With Atlanta pressing ahead, an unmarked Pirez put a point blank header to the left of Steffen, who sprang to push it away in the 65th minute.
Four minutes later, Kekuteh Manneh put Guzan on notice when he ripped a shot from 25 yards that slammed off the bar as a collective gasp emanated from the record crowd.
Josef Martinez nearly spoiled Steffen’s night when he uncovered a quality opportunity to score in the 73rd minute only to watch his shot crash off the left post.
Atlanta was afforded one more opportunity to win it in regulation when Martinez linked up with Hector Villalba, who tried to squeeze one through at the near post, where Steffen put his 6-3, 190 lbs. frame in front of it to frustrate his adversary.
Columbus had a chance to win in extra time when Harrison Afful’s header beat Guzan and skipped toward an open goal before Michael Parkhurst chased it down and cleared it inches in front of the line in the 118th minute.
But Parkhurst’s rescue only set the stage for Steffen to cement his memorable performance with penalties on tap. Atlanta went first, and the Columbus keeper proceeded to stop Gressel and Pirez before Jahn, who hadn’t even touched ball after entering as a 120th minute substitute, slammed his shot past Guzan.