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Atlanta United 0-0 Columbus Crew SC (1-3 pen.): Atlanta lose heartbreaker in penalties in MLS Cup Playoffs

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United’s inaugural season comes to a gutwrenching end.

MLS: Eastern Conference Knockout Round-Columbus Crew at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night’s MLS Cup first-round knockout match had an all-too familiar ending for people that have followed Atlanta sports for a while. Atlanta United and Columbus Crew SC battled to an exciting 0-0 draw, with Columbus winning 3-1 on penalties to eliminate Atlanta from playoff contention.

Atlanta had a chance to draw first blood in the eleventh minute, but Miguel Almiron’s attempt from distance rang off the woodwork in a bid to make it 1-0 Atlanta. In the 19th, following a corner kick, Chris Mccann’s attempt from outside the box was tipped over the bar by Zack Steffen.

It turned out to be foreshadowing for what was to come in this match, as we had plenty of twists and turns over the entirety of the night.

And Columbus appeared to make it 1-0 on this goal in the 40th minute, but it turned out to be called offside on a controversial decision. Was it? You decide.

Neither team could find that elusive first goal, especially Atlanta, who struggled to get the ball to Josef Martinez and largely didn’t see a great deal of offensive creativity. They had a glorious opportunity in the 65th minute on a free kick by Yamil Asad behind and to the right of the box. It found its way to the head of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who was absolutely robbed by Steffen to keep it level. Moments later, it was Atlanta needing to breathe a sigh of relief as a poor pass by Michael Parkhurst saw a Columbus shot ring off the woodwork, a recurring theme this evening.

Somehow, this match ended up heading to extra time.

In the 12th minute, Columbus saw their best chance of the session as Federico Higuain stood alone in the box but was stopped dead-on by Brad Guzan. They came close again in stoppage time of the first extra time session, but Harrison Afful’s blistering attempt from distance clipped off the crossbar as the match remained scoreless. With about two and a half minutes remaining in the second session, an unbelievable goal-line clearance by Michael Parkhurst saw the match remain level.

That would take it to penalties, where it all came crashing down for Atlanta.

Julian Gressel’s miss was followed by Federico Higuain’s make in the first round, while both Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Kekuta Manneh saw their shots stopped on their respective chances. After both Tito Villalba and Niko Hansen made their opportunities in round three, Jeff Larentowicz rang one off the post, setting up Adam Jahn’s match decider to send Columbus on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals against New York City FC.

The recurring theme postgame was missed chances that could have given the match a different feel.

“It’s a cruel way (to end the season),” Michael Parkhurst said. “We had a great run at the end, but we just came up a little short. We had our chances throughout the game. I thought in the 94th minute we were to steal it...It’s a crapshoot when it comes to penalties, and we came up on the short end.”

“We just never put (the ball) in,” said Jeff Larentowicz. “It comes down to penalties where anything can happen. We came very close, but in the end it wasn’t close enough.”

Close indeed. But by all accounts, it was a season to remember for a club that took MLS by storm in its inaugural year. Atlanta set numerous league attendance records, coming out in droves every match.

“Just a profound ‘thank you’ for all the fans,” Tata Martino said. “The support has been there all year, from when we didn’t have players, to starting to play at Bobby Dodd Stadium, to this stage of the season at Mercedes-Benz...The commitment from us is that we will continue to improve and get better.”

And now the scene shifts to the offseason. What moves will the front office make? Will Atlanta’s top names be here in 2018? What can fans expect to see next year, and will they continue to provide their support?

The story of Atlanta United is just beginning.