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2018 MLS Cup playoffs: Penalty kick heartbreak sees D.C. United fall to Columbus Crew

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United missed three penalties in the tiebreaker, ending their MLS Cup hopes

D.C. United had the home field advantage they so desperately craved for Thursday night’s MLS knockout round game, but fell to the Columbus Crew in a penalty shootout. The teams played to a 2-2 stalemate over 120 minutes in front of a sellout crowd of 20,600 at Audi Field before the Crew took the win 3-2 in the tiebreaker.

Frederic Brillant had United ahead in the first half, but Federico Higuain sent the teams into the locker room tied. After a scoreless second half, Higuain’s header in the 96th minute put Columbus on course for an upset win on the road. However, Nick DeLeon, already in United playoff folklore, smashed home a stunning half-volley equalizer in the 116th minute.

In the shootout, both Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta had their attempts saved by Zack Steffen. Bill Hamid made a save on Gyasi Zardes, keeping United alive. Patrick Mullins hit the post with a chance to win it for the Crew, but DeLeon fired over the goal as the Crew advance to take on the New York Red Bulls.

Four days after the season finale draw against the Chicago Fire, head coach Ben Olsen made just one change to his starting lineup. Yamil Asad, who was used as a sub against the Fire, got the nod against the Crew. His insertion into the lineup moved Ulises Segura over to the right wing. Paul Arriola moved to right back, while DeLeon returned to the bench.

Gyasi Zardes, the Crew’s leading scorer in 2018 with 19 tallies, found space out on the right for the game’s first chance in the 2nd minute. The US international got into the box, slicing a powerful shot that couldn’t stay on frame.

In the 8th minute, Columbus wanted a handball called on Rooney in the build-up, but United’s captain got into the box only for center back Jonathan Mensah putting the ball out for a corner.

A header out wide from Zardes in the 14th minute freed Higuain down the left flank. With plenty of space to get into the box, Higuain tried to find Justin Meram with a centering pass, but Russell Canouse acrobatically cleared the ball out to prevent a shot.

Bill Hamid was forced into his first save three minutes later, as the Crew went from left to right quickly from a throw-in. Harrison Afful picked out Wil Trapp in the middle of the field after the switch, and the midfielder clipped a cross into the box near the back post. Zardes rose up to win the header, but Hamid parried the shot away.

Proceedings had mostly favored the visitors, but a surprise scorer gave United the lead in the 21st minute. A free kick from Rooney near midfield went untouched, and Acosta gained possession near the end line. Acosta served the ball back in, but Zack Steffen fumbled the cross. Brillant, who scored twice in two years for New York City FC, dove in front of Milton Valenzuela to head United into the lead.

The Crew didn’t miss a beat after falling behind, and seven minutes later, their persistence paid off, as Higuain leveled the score for the visitors. A through ball from Valenzuela got past Arriola, allowing Meram to race towards goal down the left flank. Meram sent the ball towards the penalty spot, where the ball pinged off of multiple United players, before Higuain stabbed a shot home in the 31st minute.

Meram then let United off the hook in the 36th minute. A cross from Afful was perfectly placed for the Iraq international, who found his way through United’s defense at the far post. With Hamid stranded, Meram only needed to guide his volley on target, but instead blasted the shot over the goal.

Seconds into the second half, United got the ball out wide on the right to Segura. The Costa Rican picked out Rooney in the box, but his shot was deflected. Asad tried to win a race to the rebound, but Steffen was quick off his line to end the danger.

In the 54th minute, Meram tried to make up for his first half miss, as he broke towards goal from midfield. There weren’t many options available to him, and so the move ended with a shot towards the near post, which Hamid comfortably saved.

A minute later, Asad played out wide for Arriola, who was in space. Arriola crossed in, but was clattered into by Valenzuela, earning a foul just outside the box. Rooney tried to pick out Acosta on the other side of the congregation in the box, but referee Allen Chapman called a foul in the scrum.

United were on their heels in the 63rd minute, as Higuain picked up possession in midfield, with the numbers favoring the visitors. Higuain had options with him as neared the box, but opted to shoot from just outside the box, which Hamid saved easily.

Both sides were frustrated with Chapman the entire night, and United wanted a call to go their way at the midfield stripe in the 77th minute. No call was coming, and United couldn’t dispossess Higuain near the box. Valenzuela eventually got the ball out on the left, and fizzed a shot just over the bar from an unfavorable angle.

There was still time for drama late on, and both keepers were called upon to keep their teams level. Pedro Santos, who has just one goal this season for the Crew, found himself in space outside the box, with the ball on his left foot. His effort was destined for the corner, but pushed wide by Hamid in the 85th minute in spectacular fashion.

And then as the game entered stoppage time, it was Steffen’s turn. Acosta and Rooney exchanged a quick set of passes, which set the the Argentine up for a shot at the top of the box. Acosta shot with venom, but was denied by an excellent finger tip save from Steffen.

Extra time began quietly enough for both teams, but Higuain put the visitors ahead in the 96th minute with his second goal of the game. Afful, who had been the creator of several chances throughout the game with his crosses, was once again allowed to deliver from the right. Higuain won the header by breaking away from his markers, glancing the ball towards the far post with his head for the 2-1 lead.

Olsen immediately brought on Zoltan Stieber and Darren Mattocks. DeLeon, who entered into the game in the second half for an injured Arriola, combined with Asad in the 104th minute to get Mattocks the ball in the box. Instead of shooting with the opening he had, Mattocks tried to create even more space, but failed to do so, as the chance quickly evaporated.

Stieber had a shot deflected wide for a corner in the 111th minute. Rooney’s service into the box found Steven Birnbaum, who could only head right to the keeper.

Just before things got truly desperate, DeLeon brought down the building with his stunning equalizer. In the 116th minute, Rooney sent a free kick into the box, looking for Birnbaum. Columbus tried to clear, but the ball fell to DeLeon at the top of the box. The author of a famous playoff goal against the Red Bulls in 2012 smacked a half volley that kissed off the post on its way past Steffen for the equalizer.

In the penalty shootout, Columbus went first, and Higuain quickly gave the Crew the advantage. Rooney, who had converted all three penalties during the regular season, then had his effort saved by Steffen. Trapp sent Hamid the wrong way, and Asad did likewise to keep United within one after two rounds.

Zardes, who made three out of his four spot kicks during the regular season, was denied by Hamid, and a confident Stieber fired past Steffen to level the scores after three rounds.

Niko Hansen, who had come on as a sub in the second half, had little trouble finding a way past Hamid to start the fourth round. Acosta couldn’t level things for United, though, as Steffen made a similar save to the one that stopped Rooney. Patrick Mullins, who had come on just before the shootout, had a chance to finish his old club off but hit the upright, giving DeLeon a chance to extend the shootout.

However, DeLeon, who had brought life to United, scooped his spot kick over the bar, ending United’s first season at Audi Field.