By Rebecca Washney
ATLANTA—Atlanta United fell to Columbus Crew for the first time, and this time it was a knockout. With a scoreless game and scoreless 30 minutes of overtime, Atlanta United and Columbus Crew were forced into penalty kicks, where United just couldn’t finish. Atlanta has bested Columbus twice before, but the playoffs lit a fire under Columbus that wasn’t there during the regular season. Goalkeeper Zach Steffen was working overtime, saving all incoming shots from United. Columbus managed to convert three of four penalty kicks while Atlanta United missed three of four, sending the Crew to the quarterfinals of the MLS playoffs and ending Atlanta’s season.
Atlanta had 9 shots in the first half, but only two on frame, hitting the crossbar a few times and shooting either just wide or over. Atlanta needed to work on bringing their shots down, as most of them were over the crossbar or tipped over by an ever-vigilant Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Columbus snuck in a few opportunities to score as well, getting six shots in the first half with two on frame. The second half featured, even more, chances for United, getting 11 more shots, four on target. United still dominated possession time, but nothing came out of it.
“Tonight, sometimes that’s how these games go,” Gerardo Martino, head coach of Atlanta United said. “We’ve finished pretty well this season and tonight finishing was an issue for us.” Michael Parkhurst, the captain of United, stepped in for an amazing goal-line clearance in the last two minutes of overtime, saving Guzan’s clean sheet and keeping United in the game. After that, it was up to penalty kicks to decide who would move on to the quarterfinals.
Julian Gressel stepped up for the first penalty kick, shooting low and left, only to be blocked by Columbus goalkeeper Zach Steffen. “It’s a game that goes back and forth,” Gressel said after the game. “To lose in penalty kicks is disappointing. We knew he [Steffen] was a good keeper in penalties, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to score enough of those.” Federico Higuain chipped Guzan, putting Columbus ahead 1-0.
Steffen easily caught a weak, straight down the center shot from Leandro Perez. Guzan kept United in the game by saving Kekuta Manneh’s shot, bolstering Hector Villalba to put away his shot in the lower left corner. Columbus’s Niko Hansen finished his, bringing Columbus up to a 2-1 lead. Jeff Larentowiczs shot hit the post, meaning Columbus only needed one more point to clinch the win. Adam Jahn beat Guzan low and to the right, ending the match.
Some of Atlanta’s top scorers were noticeably absent from the penalty kick lineup. Josef Martinez, who scored 19 goals this season, was subbed out in the 114th minute for “physical reasons.” Yamil Asad, another high-scoring player with 9 goals this season, was also subbed in the 68th minute. Miguel Almiron, who was fifth in line to shoot, didn’t even get the chance after Jahn made his shot and ended the game.
Atlanta finished its inaugural MLS regular season fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 15-9-10 record and 55 points. Not bad for a new team on its first season. Atlanta even managed to break some records during the final game. According to Mercedes-Benz stadium officials, United sold 67,221 tickets to break the previous league attendance record set in 2002 in a match between Los Angeles and New England.
Columbus Crew will face off against New York City FC in the MLS quarterfinals.