Federico Higuain scored two goals and converted in the penalty shootout as the Columbus Crew advanced in the MLS Cup playoffs on Thursday over Wayne Rooney’s DC United.
The teams were knotted at 2-2 after extra time after Nick DeLeon grabbed an equalizer for DC United in the 116th minute.
But DeLeon would plummet from the heights to the depths minutes later when his shoot-out effort sailed high over the bar on United’s last attempt. Columbus advanced 3-2 on penalties to an Eastern Conference semi-final against the New York Red Bulls — winners of the Supporters’ Shield as the team topping the regular-season table.
Higuain opened the shoot-out to put Columbus up 1-0. Rooney took United’s first attempt and his effort was saved by diving Crew keeper Zack Steffen.
Steffen also saved an attempt from Luciano Acosta before DeLeon’s bad miss ended things.
“He’s unbelievable,” Crew captain Wil Trapp said of Steffen. “We feel like every time he’s going to make a great save and he made two of them.”
It was a heartbreaking end to Rooney’s remarkable first campaign with DC United.
The former Manchester United and England star arrived in July and was the catalyst for a stunning transformation in United fortunes, leading them from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to playoff contenders.
They took a 10-game unbeaten streak into the playoffs, finishing fourth in the conference standings.
But for the second straight year, Columbus advanced out of the knockout round in a shootout.
As in Atlanta a year ago, Steffen was key.
“It just comes down to instincts and your gut feeling,” he said of his diving saves of Rooney and Acosta.
– ‘It’s a thrill’ –
“I don’t like them,” he added of shoot-outs. “I get nervous — but at the same time it’s a thrill.”
France’s Frederic Brillant had given DC United the lead in the 21st minute after Steffen shunted an Acosta cross into his path in front of goal. Rooney had set things in motion with a long free kick that Acosta tracked down.
Nine minutes later Higuain made it 1-1, slotting the ball home after Junior Moreno and Joseph Mora failed to clear.
Higuain’s header six minutes into extra time put Columbus up for the first time in the contest. He had sent the ball wide to Harrison Afful then made his way into the penalty area where Afful’s pass found him and he headed into the far corner past United keeper bill Hamid.
DeLeon, a second-half substitute who missed much of the season with a knee injury, made it 2-2 in the 116th when he intercepted an attempted clearance by Gyasi Zardes and fired a volley from just outside the area inside the near post. It was his first goal in more than two years.
Hamid made one save in the shootout, and Columbus midfielder Patrick Mullins hit the post to give United an opening, but DeLeon couldn’t come close.
In Los Angeles, Damir Kreilach’s double for Real Salt Lake helped his side fend off a comeback by LAFC as they punched their ticket to the Western Conference semi-finals.
The sixth-seeded Real Salt Lake overcame a 2-1 second-half deficit to advance to face top-seeded Sporting Kansas City in the next round.
LAFC, the third seed, missed a golden opportunity for a playoff win in their first season of existence.
© Agence France-Presse (Additional Edits By Oisin McQueirns)