Columbus Crew SC show MLS Cup-winning credentials, plus breaking down Orlando-NYCFC shootout | Steve Zakuani

Darlington Nagbe - Columbus Crew - celebrates

Day two of the playoffs had it all. We saw a wild shootout between Orlando and NYCFC, while the Crew ended the Red Bulls season and showed their championship potential. Here are my top takeaways.

Drama galore in Orlando-NYCFC shootout

It’s unfortunate in some ways that all the headlines will be about what took place in the penalty shootout because the game itself was very entertaining and had a playoff intensity throughout. But as entertained as I was by the 120 minutes of action, there is only one place we can begin when addressing this game: that wild penalty shootout.

It’s important that we distinguish fact from fiction when dissecting what happened. The sending off for Orlando goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, as much as it pains me to say this, was the correct decision by the strict letter of the law as currently applied in MLS. In short, the law states that if a goalkeeper steps off his line to make a save during a shootout, it’s an automatic yellow even on the first offense. Being that this was Gallese’s second yellow, he had to go.

That law has since been changed by the IFAB but since the change occurred while MLS was already in season, it won’t take effect here until next season. It's a real shame that Gallese was sent off and now has to miss the next game. Stepping off your line should result in a retaken penalty and not a second yellow that forces you to miss a game, which in this case you could argue just happens to be the biggest game in Orlando's history. But, the refs applied the law correctly and it was ultimately the right decision.

Penalty shootouts are unbelievably tense occasions and as someone who has been in their fair share of them, I can tell you that most players just want it to be over as soon as possible. That’s why I can’t imagine the mental anguish, anxiety, confusion and wide range of emotions that both teams went through as they navigated the confusion surrounding the attempted substitution of Orlando backup goalkeeper Brian Rowe. The walk from the halfway line to the penalty spot is the longest, loneliest walk in the world in the best of times. When you add in the long delay, which gave Taty Castellanos more time to think than he would have wanted — time that was no doubt spent changing his mind about where he wanted to place his shot which would have only added to the doubt you feel about whether you are making the right decision  — it’s fair to say that we must give the NYCFC player credit for having nerves of steel and dispatching the penalty after all of that chaos.

In the end, I’m glad Orlando won because it would have been cruel to have seen Oscar Pareja sprint down the tunnel in celebration only to find out the game wasn’t over and then have to watch his star player, Nani, fail to end it by missing his kick, before NYCFC completed the great escape. That would have been hard to watch, so despite all of the entertainment during the shootout — some of it for the wrong reasons — I believe Orlando were the deserved winners.  

Crew show championship credentials

There are a few signs of a championship-caliber team. One of them is winning when you aren’t playing well. Another one is the ability to not panic when you fall behind, but dig deep and find a way to turn the result in your favor. If that second sign carries any weight then Columbus just showed that they are built for the playoffs.

It wasn’t necessarily pretty and at times they allowed the Red Bulls to look more dangerous than they should have, but once they took the lead through Darlington Nagbe, they never really looked like losing. I’ve been in a few Caleb Porter’s half time team talks and although I have no way of knowing what he told his team in the locker room, they came out like a team on fire and once the level was upped, you could see the gulf in class between them and the Red Bulls.

There will be stiffer tests for the Crew and they’ll need to get a little more out of Lucas Zelarayan in order to succeed in those games. His class is evident but he still looks like he’s trying to find that final gear he had earlier in the season before the injuries. He gives them a different dimension in the final third when he is on song, and the connection he can have with Nagbe is as good as it gets. Speaking of Nagbe, he was outstanding in the second half. His change of pace and link up play is not something we have seen in this league before. I am convinced he would be the best 6, 8, or 1- on most teams in this league — his quality is taken for granted far too often and on Saturday he reminded us all of the things he does that no one else can.

There’s no question Columbus have a couple more notches they can reach and so we have to put this win in its proper context: they were good, not great, but were able to come from behind and score three goals while almost having 20 shots. What will they be capable of when they are firing on all cylinders for 90 minutes? The Eastern Conference has been put on notice.

Orlando should savor win but will need to improve

Orlando will need 24 hours to process what just happened, but after that they’ll need to refocus and lock in for the next challenge. Both Philadelphia and New England would be a tough task but I am almost certain they will be facing the Union. If I am proven right, the Lions will need to make some drastic improvements, particularly defensively if they are to keep this great campaign going.

Against NYCFC they allowed 26 shots with seven of those being on goal. With the quality Philly have in attack, you cannot afford to give them those sort of openings because their ability to convert is much better than NYCFC’s. It’s not a complicated issue to fix, it will just require honest hard work, tracking back, remaining compact in their defensive shape and not allowing easy entry balls between the lines. The margin for error becomes extremely thin in the playoffs and so winning and losing is less about the big flashy plays and more about the small mundane plays that require extreme attention to detail.

I do not expect, nor would I recommend that Orlando greatly alter their tactics and try to be ultra-defensive or anything along those lines. In fact, their best chance of success will be to play on the front foot especially in transition. They have been at their best when they turn defense into attack by unleashing Nani, Chris Mueller, Mauricio Pererya and Daryl Dike on the counter. That group has enough skill, pace, creativity, goals and assists to worry any backline, even one as resolute as the Union’s but they will have to be at their very best to get a result. 

Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization