Atlanta’s introduction to MLS playoff soccer Thursday night was filled with four shots clanging off posts, a controversial offside call, tremendous saves by goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Zack Steffen, and a new attendance record.
What it didn’t have, after the first 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, was a goal or a winning team. Both teams did everything they could, but the metal of the posts, the hands and feet of the goalies, and a timely goal-line clearance by Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst on a header by Harrison Afful in the 118th minute sent the game to a penalty kick shootout at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In a penalty-kick shootout, Columbus converted three of its four attempts and Atlanta United missed three of its four. The 3-1 loss in the shootout ended Atlanta United’s season and sent the Crew to the quarterfinals of the MLS playoffs. They will face NYCFC.
“It’s a cruel way, it’s crueler in the MLS Cup final,” Parkhurst, the team captain, said. “It’s tough. I’m proud of this group. Proud to be one of the leaders of this group. We worked hard all season. We had a very good season and a great run at the end. We just came up a little short. It’s a crap-shoot once you get into penalties and we came up on the short end.”
The Five Stripes were the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to advance to the playoffs. They finish their season 15-10-10 and set numerous attendance records while raising expectations for the next four expansion teams.
But none of that mattered as the players walked to the Supporter’s End to take the decided penalty kicks.
Some of Atlanta United’s players practiced penalty kicks during the week. Manager Gerardo Martino said they didn’t practice them as a team because he said it’s tough to recreate those conditions in training.
Once the extra time was over on Thursday, he gathered the team together to discuss who would take the kicks and in what order. He said Miguel Almiron wanted to be fifth. He didn’t get a chance to shoot. Neither did Josef Martinez, who was subbed for “physical reasons” in the 114th minute, or Yamil Asad, who was subbed off in the 68th minute. Martinez scored 19 goals this season, Almiron nine and Asad seven.
Julian Gressel wanted to go first. He said he had practiced during the week. Steffen got down to his right to save the shot. Federico Higuain converted his for Columbus with a nice chip to give Columbus a 1-0 lead.
“It’s a game that goes back and forth,” Gressel said. “To lose in penalty kicks is disappointing. We knew he was a good keeper in penalties, but unfortunately we weren’t able to score enough of those.”
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez tried to go down the middle on the second, but Steffen easily saved the weak shot. Guzan saved Atlanta United by diving to his left to save Kekuta Manneh’s shot and keep Columbus’ lead at 1-0.
Hector Villalba went low and to his left for Atlanta United’s first conversion. But Niko Hansen made his to give Columbus a 2-1 lead.
Jeff Larentowicz put his shot off the post, meaning Columbus needed only to make its next one to win the shootout 3-1. Adam Jahn went to his right, beating Guzan and clinching the win.
Atlanta United reportedly sold 67,221 tickets were sold, breaking the previous league playoff record of 61,316 set in 2002 in a game between Los Angeles and New England.
Atlanta United had so many chances to send the crowd into a frenzy, but Steffen wasn’t going to be beaten. He tipped a short from Chris McCann over the bar in the first half. He fully extended to push away a header from Gonzalez Pirez in the 65th minute. He stoned Villalba in the 90th minute from close range. When he was beaten, the posts were there to save him on shots from Almiron and Martinez. Steffen finished with eight saves.
“Zack made a few saves,” Guzan said. “To be honest, with the quality we have and the players we have I would have expected one of those go in.”
Guzan was also hot, also got help from his post, and was aided by a controversial offside call.
He saved a shot with his right on on a shot from Pedro Santos in the 31st minute.
A controversial offsides call in the 40th dominated the talk at haltime after the linesman’s flag went up on a diagonal pass to Santos, who was onside while teammate Ola Kamara, standing a few yards away in the middle of the pitch was offsides. Santos ran onto the pass and passed it to Kamara, who by then was in an onside position and whose goal was wiped away.
Manneh hit the crossbar in the 68th minute. Guzan smothered a header from Higuain in extra time and saw a ripped shot from Afful hit the crossbar in the 105th minute.
“Tonight, sometimes that’s how these games go,” Martino said. “We’ve finished pretty well this season and tonight finishing was an issue for us.”