Zack Steffen called Thursday night the best moment of his career, and as much as that's no surprise, you get the feeling we will get used to seeing the Columbus Crew goalkeeper match it in a promising career that officially took flight this week.
Steffen's heroics helped the Crew eliminate Atlanta United from the 2017 MLS playoffs, and served notice to not only Eastern Conference playoff teams but also other U.S. national team goalkeeper hopefuls that he has arrived.
The 22-year-old keeper played like a grizzled veteran, not like a youngster wrapping up his first full season as a professional starter. He showed off the acrobatic shot-stopping ability that has long made him a highly-regarded prospect on his way up the U.S. youth national team ranks. He also showed a real fearlessness by attacking aerial threats, rounding out his game well over the course of the regular season.
Steffen was one of several individual stars to highlight the MLS playoff knockout rounds. It was also a round that saw blowouts on Wednesday and two very different kinds of goal-less draws in regulation on Thursday. The East saw its two higher seeds fall, while the West went according to script.
Here is a look back at all four knockout-round matches:
STEFFEN SAVES THE CREW
On a night when Brad Guzan's own performance would normally have been good enough to win a match, it was Steffen who delivered one of the best goalkeeping performances in recent MLS playoff history.
The University of Maryland product made save after save during the 120 minutes of regulation and extra time, then saved the first two Atlanta United penalties to set the tone for a Crew shootout victory.
“He played a great game, stayed calm, stayed focused and, in penalties, what can you say? He saves two, another hits the crossbar," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said after Thursday's win. "He showed that he affected them.”
As much as the story of the night was Steffen, don't let his heroics take away from the reality that the Crew matched the home team in the big-scoring-chance department. That was in part because of Atlanta's wide-open style, which generally leaves the team exposed when the chances aren't going in and the opposition can capitalize on the available space.
Tata Martino has been lauded non-stop this season for his tactical acumen, but the reality is he has shown a penchant for being stubborn about his tactics and squad rotation, while not really establishing himself as being good at in-game adjustments. You can call that dedication to a philosophy, but given the firepower at his disposal, and some of the bad losses the team took during the year, Martino will have to think long and hard this winter about how he will adapt in his second year.
As for the Crew, they showed the quality that had them riding a 10-match unbeaten streak going into the playoffs. They're a team that didn't let owner Anthony Precourt's very public courtship with a move to Austin, Texas, become a distraction that affected their game. Credit to Berhalter for not only keeping his team focused, but for also learning from the mistakes of a forgettable 2016 season to get his team back into title contention after reaching the MLS Cup final in 2015.
Up next for Steffen and the Crew is New York City FC, which also happens to be the one other team that made a play for Steffen when he decided to return from Europe a year ago. Given Steffen's heroics on Wednesday, the story behind his journey to the Crew deserves another look.
Steffen was a big-time youth national team prospect for a long time, and the Philadelphia Union began working with him early on as a hometown product. Though he began at the well-respected youth club FC Delco, the Union brought Steffen into their player development system at a time when the team didn't have an actual academy, but rather affiliate programs. Steffen trained with Union coaches for two years, putting in the time required to qualify as a Union homegrown player when the time came for him to turn pro.
Things went south in the summer of 2014, when the Union fired head coach John Hackworth and technical director Rob Vartughian, in part because they opposed the team's plans to sign Algerian goalkeeper Rais M'Bohli. Hackworth and Vartughian had already drafted Andre Blake, and had made plans to eventually sign Steffen as a homegrown player, a move Steffen was on board with. That changed once the Union brought in M'Bolhi, which propelled Steffen to pursue options in Europe later in 2014.
The Union made a bad situation even worse when they failed to offer Steffen a homegrown player contract before he signed with Freiburg, an offer which would have given them the MLS rights to Steffen if he were to return to MLS. That left the Union out of the equation when Steffen decided to leave Freiburg after a year and a half in Germany, with the Crew holding the discovery rights to the young goalkeeper and signing him rather than trading those rights to NYCFC.
Now Steffen is looking like the USMNT prospect he was expected to be as a youth national team standout, and the Crew are reaping the rewards for believing in him as a prospect.
RED BULLS REWARDED FOR STICKING TO SYSTEM
For two straight years, the New York Red Bulls put together outstanding regular seasons only to fall flat in the MLS playoffs. It was a worrying trend that led to coach Jesse Marsch shaking up his squad in search of answers for why his team couldn't deliver in the postseason.
The Red Bulls spent a large part of 2017 looking for an approach that fit, scrapping a move to a 4-4-2 early in the season before returning to its long-standing 4-5-1. Then the summer came and Marsch took the gusty tactical leap to shift his team into what amounted to a 3-6-1 formation with three center backs, two wings backs and a four-man central midfield.
Even though the team's results weren't looking so great in the new system, Marsch didn't lose faith. He stuck with the new system, which was playing well even though the results weren't coming at first, and that system ran right through the Fire on Wednesday.
As good as Marsch had to feel at watching his team play so well in Wednesday's 5-0 thrashing of the Fire, he knows what awaits in the East semifinals against Toronto FC.
"We haven't really achieved anything yet, so I don't want to talk about validations or anything," Marsch said. "There's a lot more work to be done. It's a big win, and we feel really good about it, but we've got to really quickly switch our brains and minds and look forward to Toronto and make sure that we're ready for an incredibly tough series against one of the best teams in league history."
The Red Bulls will be the clear underdogs against TFC in their series, which kicks off on Monday at Red Bull Arena, and after having lost in the same round as the higher seed the previous two years under Marsch, the Red Bulls coach will be hoping a new role leads to a different result.
"You could make an argument that having the home game first sets the tone for the series, so it's time to put our money where our mouth is," Marsch said.
WASTON LEADS WHITECAPS ROUT
As much as Vancouver's 5-0 destruction of the San Jose Earthquakes was a complete team effort, Costa Rican central defender Kendall Waston deserves mention for his virtuoso performance, the latest in a run of form that has him looking like the best defender in the league at the moment.
Waston scored a goal and set up another in the rout, but he also dominated in the air on the defensive end, helping neutralize San Jose's attack on the way to a shutout.
"Kendall leads them. He leads this football club as the captain, and he leads by example," coach Carl Robinson said of Waston, who helped the Whitecaps secure the first playoff win in club history.
You can understand why Waston might be feeling as good as he ever has, having helped Costa Rica secure its place at the 2018 World Cup with his dramatic last-second goal in a qualifying draw against Honduras earlier this month. Partnered with the underrated Tim Parker in Vancouver's central defense, Waston has limited the big mistakes that cost him quite a bit in 2016, and is a contender for an MLS Best XI place this season.
Waston was far from alone in performing well on Wednesday. Fredy Montero, Cristian Techera and Stefan Marinovic were just some of the others to post outstanding performances. That said, Watson will need to keep the high level he has reached in recent weeks if the Whitecaps are going to have a chance to knock off the defending champion Seattle Sounders in the West semifinals.
SPORTING KC FADES LATE YET AGAIN
In a match that was easily the ugliest of the knockout round, the Houston Dynamo pulled away from Sporting Kansas City in extra time after a goal-less regulation, and once again Sporting KC finished a season on a late slide that left the team looking like it was running on fumes.
Peter Vermes will face familiar questions about how he manages the team, and whether he is to blame for wearing his team out by not making more liberal use of his bench, and not getting his starters more rest during the season. A look at the team's stats show a squad that had eight players who logged more than 2,200 regular season minutes in 2017, but while that figure is only one more than the Houston Dynamo managed, there are other factors to consider. The first being Sporting KC's relentless pressing style, which requires much more physical exertion from its players. The second being Sporting KC's run to the U.S. Open Cup title, a run that saw Vermes use most of his first-choice players in all four rounds.
That workload led to a team that faded badly down the stretch, failing to win any of its final regular-season matches before Thursday's knockout round loss in Houston. The loss marked Sporting KC's fourth straight knockout round exit, and the fourth straight season since the team's MLS Cup title-winning campaign in 2013 where the team faded badly down the stretch.
"I think that the last four or five games of the season, we fall out a form a little bit," Vermes said after Thursday's loss. "That hurt us down the stretch, especially when you are in a good position like we were after in the LA Galaxy game. We had an opportunity to solidify first or second place, and we didn’t do that and that’s on us when you fall out of form towards the end of the season, which is something we have not done over the years."
Vermes is right in pointing out that his team has managed to play at a consistently good level for a stretch of seven years now, but the past four years have seen a worrying trend where his players run out of gas to close out the year. It seems unlikely Vermes is going to change his team's high-pressing style, or its consistent commitment to taking the U.S. Open Cup seriously, but he will need to think long and hard about how better to manage his team's minutes in 2018 or Sporting KC could find itself suffering the same late-season fate yet again next year.