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Columbus and Steffen spoil Atlanta's expansion dream, Houston rolls on

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen had several tremendous stops in regular time and in penalties to lift Columbus to victory against Atlanta.

There were fewer goals but more drama during the second set of MLS knockout-round matches Thursday.

The Columbus Crew prevailed over Atlanta United, winning the penalty shootout 3-1 after playing 120 minutes of scoreless -- but very exciting -- soccer.

Here are four thoughts from the second night of the MLS Cup playoffs.

1. Crew and Steffen rise to the occasion

Heading into the playoffs, it had been quite a 10-day period for the Columbus Crew. As the team on the field ended the regular season with a 10-game unbeaten streak, owner Anthony Precourt stated he's exploring plans -- and it certainly sounded more serious than that -- to move the team to Austin, Texas.

As such, one might have expected the off-field tumult to impact the Crew's performance. It didn't in the slightest, as the Crew effectively ignored any off-field distractions. Sure, the start was wobbly, with Zack Steffen's fingernail save on Miguel Almiron's drive in the 11th minute keeping the game level.

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Columbus Crew SCColumbus Crew SC
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Columbus Crew SC wins 3-1 on Penalty Kicks.
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But there was no hint of bunkering down in the game plan of Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter, and on the night the Crew was every bit Atlanta's equal. In reality, the visitors should have been a goal up in the 40th minute, only for an incorrect offside call to nullify a goal from Ola Kamara. And for everyone asking why video assistant referee (VAR) wasn't used, Allen Chapman blew the whistle when the assistant referee's flag went up, thus eliminating any possible use of technology.

The Crew were left to curse their luck again in the 68th minute when substitute Kekuta Manneh hit the crossbar.

But then Lady Luck began to smile on the Crew a bit. Atlanta's Josef Martinez hit the post in the 72nd minute. The rest of the luck was made by Steffen. He produced eight saves -- some of them spectacular -- through 120 minutes, and two more in the penalty shootout that followed. Steffen has had his ups and downs this season, but mostly ups, and is looking like a player to keep an eye on going forward.

Now the Crew will face New York City FC, with the first leg Monday in Columbus. It will be the first home match for the Crew since Precourt announced his plan. The atmosphere will no doubt be special.

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Atlanta players were left to wonder what could have been after losing to Columbus in a penalty shootout.

2. Atlanta's debut season ends in disappointment

The Five Stripes have done so much right in their expansion season both on and off the field. It will go down as a blueprint for other expansion teams to follow. But for all of its detailed planning and astute team construction, Atlanta is no more immune to the game's truths than any other team. If you don't take your chances, you risk elimination. With Atlanta unable to overcome Steffen, the woodwork and its own wayward finishing, the vagaries of the penalty shootout proved the undoing of Tata Martino's exciting team. Atlanta's conversion rate from the spot was little better than it was during the preceding 120 minutes. Of United's four shooters, only Hector Villalba converted.

It's a familiar ending for Martino, whose last match with Argentina -- in the Copa America Centenario final against Chile -- also ended in penalty-shootout failure. The extent to which he is responsible in this instance is up for debate. For all of Martino's tactical brilliance during the regular season, he has been criticized for not utilizing more squad rotation over the course of the campaign. The condensed schedule down the stretch did neither him nor the team many favors.

This is not to say that Atlanta played horribly. Far from it. This was an evenly contested match, and it wouldn't have been an injustice had it prevailed. The likes of Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst delivered courageous performances, with Parkhurst coming on as a sub, playing gamely on an injured knee and still managing to help Atlanta survive with a late goal-line clearance. Almiron and Martinez certainly had their dangerous moments, and Brad Guzan was nearly Steffen's equal in the Atlanta goal.

But Atlanta seemed to be lacking that bit of sharpness, that percentage point or two of performance. And in the playoffs, that is oftentimes the difference between advancing or going home. Now Atlanta will have the offseason to ponder how it takes the next step.

Alberth Elis broke the deadlock in extra time to send the Houston Dynamo to the Western Conference semifinals.

3. Houston shows more than just a counterattack

Some games that are starved of goals, like the Columbus-Atlanta match, can be exciting, filled with goalmouth incidents and great drama. The Sporting Kansas City-Houston encounter was not one of those matches. The cause of the respective offenses wasn't helped by a playing surface that was fit for an Apollo moon landing, but not much else.

Yet the Dynamo managed to prevail, even if it was in ugly fashion. For a team built to soak up pressure and nail teams on the counter, this isn't a bad trait to have, especially in the postseason. And it's one they've shown with increasing frequency. This was the third time in the past month that Houston had gone up against Kansas City and its league-leading defense, and it came away with two wins and a draw.

On this night, the Dynamo found a way courtesy of some magic from substitute Vicente Sanchez. In the 94th minute, the Uruguayan beat Jimmy Medranda before finding Alberth Elis in so much space that the Honduras international had time to take two touches before finishing with his third.

At age 37, Sanchez can no longer last the full 90 minutes. Out of 21 appearances this season, just three of those were starts. But he is a player who is full of guile, and still effective in short spurts, as witnessed by his two goals and five assists in just over 500 minutes this season. Perhaps Sanchez used up all of his mojo on that one play. He could have put the game away late in the first half of extra time when put through by Elis, only to skew his shot wide. He later had a penalty saved.

No matter. Houston is moving on to the conference semifinals courtesy of a 1-0 win, where a series against the Portland Timbers awaits. It's an opponent that might suit Houston better given the way the Timbers are willing to seize the attacking initiative. But the Dynamo will be confident in the knowledge it has more than one tactical club in its bag.

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4. Sporting suffers in the knockout round again

The knockout round hasn't been kind to SKC in recent years. There was the defeat to the New York Red Bulls in 2014, a penalty-shootout loss to the Portland Timbers a year later, followed by last year's defeat in regulation to the Seattle Sounders, one in which SKC had a perfectly good goal disallowed. Thursday night in Houston resulted in the same frustration.

SKC specializes in offense asphyxiation, and this match was no different. On the rare occasions that the Dynamo's vaunted counterattack got going, Kansas City showed no compunction to engage in tactical fouling.

But Kansas City, much as it has all year, couldn't find the offensive breakthrough it needed. Gerso Fernandes had some bright moments, but he was forced out of the match with an injury. Ike Opara thought he had found a breakthrough in the 77th minute when he headed home Graham Zusi's free kick, only to be judged -- correctly in this case -- offside.

Of course, Kansas City will be left to wonder how its campaign might have concluded had it not traded striker Dom Dwyer to Orlando in midseason. To be fair, the team struggled for goals with Dwyer and without him. Certainly SKC's inability to secure a home playoff game in recent years plays a big factor in its postseason results. This year it also faded down the stretch, going 0-3-2 and squandering two chances late in the regular season against Houston that would have seen it host this match instead of go on the road.

So is it the system or just this group of players? That is a question that will certainly be examined in the offseason. For now, SKC will be left to stew in the bitterness of another knockout-round defeat.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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