On a Wednesday evening when Columbus Crew signing Cucho Hernández arrived in town, the Black & Gold were north of the border, facing Toronto FC for a chance to sweep the season series. With only four days of rest and some pre-match transactions, Columbus welcomed back a star, introduced a new-yet familiar name and a Homegrown talent put his laces through an impressive goal. All that ended in a 2-1 Crew victory that brought the Trillium Cup back to Central Ohio.
Wednesday morning, the Black & Gold signed a name familiar is to fans of Crew 2, Columbus’ MLS NEXT Pro team, in forward Jacen Russell-Rowe. After making two substitute appearances in Columbus’ last two matches, the Crew signed the forward to a first-team contract due to Russell-Rowe exhausting his two MLS NEXT Pro call-ups. The Toronto-bred striker didn’t have to wait long to get his chance, starting opposite returning midfielder Lucas Zelarayán.
The Black & Gold began the match in a 3-5-2 formation, with Zelarayán returning to his first match after missing the last four in a forward position. Once the match began, Columbus looked similar to the team’s last three matches by absorbing pressure and trying their luck on the counter.
The Crew started the first minute trying to create an early lead. Midfielder Sean Zawadzki made a quick reflex header to keep Black & Gold possession in the first 20 seconds of the match, and it gave Columbus the break. Fullback Pedro Santos ended up with a shot early that deflected for a corner. The Crew didn’t have many first half attacks, but the team made the best of what was created.
It was the home side that almost got on the board first. Midfield star Alejandro Pozuelo sent a pass through the legs of the Black & Gold defense and set up Toronto’s first shot in the third minute. Fullback Kosi Thompson shot at goalkeeper Eloy Room, who made his first of five first half saves.
Columbus didn’t have much of the ball, just 40 percent possession, in the first 45 minutes, but still looked dangerous. Early on for the Crew, it was Russell-Rowe, the first ever Crew 2 signing to the senior team, starting in his first top-level pro match, who created chances. In the sixth minute, Russell-Rowe chased down the TFC defense to win possession and find an open Santos who put too much behind a wide shot.
Less than a minute later, Russell-Rowe again almost created, this time with a shot that looked destined for inside the far post of Reds’ goalkeeper Alex Bono but ended up curling outside for a Toronto goal kick. Russell-Rowe added another shot in the 17th minute but was part of his first goal produced a minute later.
The visitors found sustained pressure in their offensive half and the final pass came from Russell-Rowe to Zawadzki. After an impressive first MLS start against Real Salt Lake on Saturday night, Zawadzki did a little more than impress in the 18th minute. The midfielder received the pass from his former Crew 2 teammate and put his boot through the ball, burying his shot into the top right-hand corner of the net.
Room added two more big saves until the Black & Gold extended their lead in the 30th minute. Russell-Rowe earned his second assist of the evening on a counter attack down the right side of the field. The Canadian, playing in front of friends and family, held onto the ball until the TFC defense bit and found an open and charging Darlington Nagbe who calmly put Columbus up two.
For the remainder of the half, the Crew was pinned in the back of the defensive half of the field. A strong backline and Room goalkeeping held the first half lead, giving the Black & Gold a two-goal padding entering the second half.
The final 10 first half minutes were a sign that Columbus needed to adjust to avoid 45 minutes of defense. Entering that second half, Toronto took advantage. It was miscommunication and tired Crew midfielders who let Pozuelo send in an unchallenged cross to forward Jesus Jiménez. The forward, who hadn’t scored since the 2021 season, leapt by center back Jonathan Mensah to cut Black & Golds’ lead in half.
At the 60th minute, Zelarayán and Santos’ evenings came to and end, both on minutes restrictions while still recovering from injuries. Winger Derrick Etienne Jr., who returned from injury after missing Columbus’ 0-0 draw in Salt Lake City, was one of those substitutions and had two breakaway chances to put the visiting side back up by two.
In the 65th minute, Etienne and Russell-Rowe were the beneficiaries of a Crew defensive interception to go on the two-on-one break. Unfortunately for the Black & Gold, Bono ran up and challenged Etienne long enough to stop a long distance shot on an open net. At the end of the rush, Russell-Rowe earned a yellow card for a tackle and left his first MLS start for forward Miguel Berry.
Etienne’s second chance came three minutes later. Berry earned Columbus a throw and quickly took it, taking advantage of no offsides allowed on throws. Etienne was far behind the Toronto defense and ran towards the penalty area and fired. The shot came at a tough angle and was saved by Bono.
For the next 20 minutes, the Crew did a good job of not sitting back in defensive penalty area and taking pressure and shots. The Black & Gold moved the ball around and tried playing keep away with the home side, but TFC still had the chances to tie.
The first came off a Columbus mistake on defense in the 77th minute. Midfielder Aidan Morris slipped with possession at the top of the defensive 18-yard-box. There to recover the ball was Crew supporter favorite and Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley who had an open shot on goal but Nagbe closed in quickly, forcing a rushed shot that trickled out for a goal kick.
It was the 85th minute where Pozuelo almost made the Black & Gold pay, but with a goal. In the middle of the penalty area, Pozuelo curled a shot to the far post, going inches wide of a goal, although Room was likely able to stop it after diving towards the effort.
With three minutes of stoppage time, Toronto applied even more pressure, looking to equalize. Columbus showed poise and held back the Canadian rivals, winning the Trillium Cup and more importantly adding three points in the standings.
Returning for the Crew was the Armenian National Team midfielder, playing out of position as a second striker. A positive for the Black & Gold was Zelarayán not being part of the two first half goals. His presence gave teammates room but with Zelarayán missing a good chunk of time in 2022, players around him aren’t standing around and watching what he can do.
Zelarayán looked quick on the field and made cuts that looked like he’s in a healhtier place. It’ll be his first match at the No. 10 role that will show if the star is back to the pre-injury player who won the MLS Player of the Month for March.
Crew 2 coming through
For the second straight match, it was players who’ve mostly played with Crew 2 this year as big performers on the field. Zawadzki started his second straight match and had a highlight reel goal for his first top division goal. Russell-Rowe created on both Columbus first half goals and looked composed in the attack and holding play.
These performances not only help the senior team but gives other names on Crew 2 like Mo Farsi and Noah Fuson extra motivation that a move to the first team is a possibility.
The Crew doesn’t play until Sunday, finishing the team’s third match in eight days. Entering Lower.com Field to celebrate its one-year opening anniversay is first place Philadelphia Union. The last time these two played, it was a mistake by Room in the first minute that gave the Union a 1-0 victory.
It’ll be a different match and a test for the Black & Gold.