Here are the ten things we learned from the 2017 MLS Wild Card games.
1. Glory To Columbus
No one gave Columbus much of a chance on Thursday night in Atlanta.
But thanks first and foremost to a stupendous performance from young goalkeeper Zach Steffan, the Crew held the high-flying MLS debutants off for 120 minutes and then knocked them out 3-1 on penalties.
It sets up on Tuesday night what promises to be one of the most extraordinary, surreal spectacles in MLS history.
Columbus owner Anthony Precourt waited until after the Crew’s final regular season home game of the season to announce that he was pursuing a deal to move the club to Austin.
Now, though, the Crew have forced their way home. They’ll play New York City FC at all-but-condemned MAPFRE Stadium on Tuesday night in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Will Precourt dare show up? The move he’s been so duplicitously seeking hasn’t happened yet. Fate still has time to intervene. For the Crew’s desperate fans, Wednesday night’s victory must have felt nearly divine.
Precourt has had his say over the last week. Now though, thanks to one of the most incredible MLS playoff victories in recent memory, the city of Columbus is going to take center stage.
2. And Heartbreak For Atlanta
It was a special, special season in Atlanta. They did this bigger and better than just about any MLS team ever has. The heartbreak they experienced on Thursday night, though, is part of the bargain.
Tata Martino will have plenty to answer to for this first heartbreak. For all he did so well this year, two career-long weaknesses – squad rotation and substitutions – came back to bite him at the end of the season.
Martino didn’t rotate his team all year, and that lack of rest showed down the stretch as the Five Stripes – frequently playing twice a week due to their back-loaded scheduled – failed to win any of their final five games.
Martino’s substitutions on Thursday night, meanwhile, were just bizarre. He put on a defender for an attacker midway through the second half, changed both of his fullbacks, and then took off the team’s primary penalty taker Josef Martinez right before the shootout.
Just as bizarre, meanwhile, was Martino’s reliance on rookie midfielder Julian Gressel – who, despite barely being able to move by the end of the game, wasn’t removed and was instead asked to take the first penalty, which he missed.