Saturday night on the road at Real Salt Lake, head coach Caleb Porter gave a Major League Soccer debut to Sean Zawadzki. Unlike many rookies for the Columbus Crew, Zawadzki didn’t come off the bench for the final few minutes to help see out the match or out of desperation with no other substitutes available. Zawadzki was given a start in his first professional game.
Not only did he start his debut, but Zawadzki started in a key role for the Crew. Playing alongside veteran Darlington Nagbe and fellow Black & Gold Academy product Aidan Morris, Zawadzki lineup up as the No. 6, or the deepest of Columbus’ three-man midfield.
Had you not watched much of the Crew this year, you likely wouldn’t have known it was Zawadzki’s first MLS game.
Defensively, Zawadzki helped the Black & Gold limit Salt Lake’s opportunities in what was a hard-fought 0-0 draw in a difficult place to play. He recorded a team-high four interceptions and two clearances, roaming the pitch to break up Real attacks.
On the other side of the ball, Zawadzki didn’t get to show too much of his offensive game, as Porter set Columbus up to defend primarily and look to be just the second team to get a result at Rio Tinto Stadium this season. He did complete 89.4 percent of his 47 passes, among the best of the Crew players.
Despite Zawadzki being a rookie and making his first appearance for the Black & Gold, his performance didn’t shock anyone who has seen him play prior.
“Not a surprise,” Porter said of Zawadzki. “I tend to not want to play guys that can struggle. I tend to play guys that I know will do well.”
“I wouldn’t say surprising because I’ve been around him for four or five months now here and he’s one of the players when I first came in, I thought was very calm, very technically gifted and a very good midfielder,” center back Milos Degenek said.
Added fullback Pedro Santos: “He’s not a surprise for me, if I might admit, because we have been working with him.”
Coming from Olmstead Falls, Ohio, Zawadzki joined the Crew Academy in 2015 and remained with the club until 2018. During that time, he played alongside Morris and former Black & Gold midfielder Sebastian Berhalter on several successful teams and was often asked to train with the Columbus first team.
Zawadzki then went to Georgetown where he played for the Hoyas for four seasons, including winning a national championship in 2019. He suited up 78 times while in Washington D.C., starting 70 games and recording four goals and six assists. During his career at Georgetown, he was named to the Big East All-Freshman Team, was twice a second-team All-Big East performer and was first-team All-Big East and the Big East Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
While his signing in mid-January didn’t attract major attention, it was one many within the Crew organization were excited about. This was another Homegrown talent with a lot of potential that Porter and his staff believed would be a key player for the club one day.
It didn’t take long for Zawadzki to get an opportunity either, stepping on the field for the Black & Gold in a number of preseason games, including in the Carolina Challenge Cup.
“I remind people that in preseason, he was starting almost every game in the preseason and I was very high on the kid,” Porter said. “He’s a true No. 6. In a three-man midfield, he’s excellent in that role.”
The major reason Columbus fans haven’t seen more of Zawadzki in MLS play this season is due to those in front of him. There are the aforementioned Nagbe and Morris, but also Artur, who returned from an injury that cost him nearly all of last year quicker than expected.
Instead, Zawadzki got regular minutes playing with Crew 2, the club’s MLS NEXT Pro team, making nine appearances and seven starts in midfield. This allowed him to continue to get regular game action and build confidence, while still training with the first team.
Even in these training sessions, teammates have seen enough to speak highly of the rookie midfielder.
“Me joking around with Sean since Day 1, I’ve always called him ‘Little Frank Lampard.’ I think he’s one of those players that’s got everything,” Degenek said. “He’s so calm on the ball. He’s got a good shot, he’s got a good pass. I hope for him obviously – I mean I hope for the club he stays here 10 years, 15 years and becomes a club legend. But I think for his career, I think he’s one of the boys that over the next couple of years, I don’t want to say definitely or guaranteed, but I think he’s one of the players that’s got a very good chance to head over Europe and make a really big name for himself.”
Fans got to finally see Zawadzki in action at the MLS level Saturday and he did not disappoint.
“I think his performance on Saturday was unbelievable,” Degenek said. “I think it’s a really good game from him, especially his first start in the MLS. And to come up against a team that’s second on the ladder away, with the altitude, with travel, with everything and all these difficulties, but I think he was for me probably the man of the match. I’d say on both sides I think he was probably the best player on the park.”
There is still a long way to go in the career of the 22 year old. Zawadzki will likely have a chance to show what he can do again on Wednesday night against Toronto FC. With Artur still out, Zawadzki is expected to retain his role in the center of the Crew’s midfield.
In this game, he will go against one of MLS’s best American midfielders in Michael Bradley. Although not a favorite of Black & Gold fans, this will be a nice measuring stick for Zawadzki in where he is and where he needs to improve to continue to excel for Columbus.
“I think him being so young, he’s in the right hands here,” Degenek said. “He’s got players in his position to look up to that are older than him, that can teach him a lot and he is one of those guys that will ask the older players for advice. So I think he’s on the right path.”