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What We Learned: Crew at Toronto FC

The Black & Gold gave us plenty to discuss with a second road win of the year.

Shane O’Neill (27) of Toronto and Jacen Russell-Rowe (39) of... Photo by Angel Marchini/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Welcome to the first-ever Crew 2 version of What We Learned. Oh, that wasn’t a Crew 2 game last night? It was a first-team match? Man, it certainly seemed like I watched the Black & Gold’s reserve side.

In all seriousness, the Columbus Crew went on the road to BMO Field for a Wednesday night fixture and returned home with an impressive 2-1 win against Toronto FC. While the injury list grew shorter with this game, there were still a few key contributors who were either out or still working their way back to full fitness and this opened the door for some of the Crew 2 players to play a big part in the match.

With three points in the bag for the Crew, let’s take a look back at our biggest takeaways from this first-team game.

The youth is strong with this one

As joked above, someone who hadn’t watched the Black & Gold in a while might have turned on this game and been confused by why multiple players who play for the club’s MLS NEXT Pro team were on the field. And don’t get it twisted, while some of this had to do with injuries, these spots have been earned.

Columbus began the game with two players who have been important for Crew 2 this year in forward Jacen Russell-Rowe and central midfielder Sean Zawadzki in the starting lineup. Will Sands came in at the 60th minute mark to play left back. This trio has played 23 MLS NEXT Pro games combined this year and, after the signing of Russell-Rowe on Wednesday, are now all a part of the first team.

While he had previously only made two substitute appearances for the Crew, Russell-Rowe did enough with Crew 2 and in practice with the first team to demonstrate he was ready to get the start. His confidence is something that Miguel Berry is lacking at this time and with Erik Hurtado out and Cucho Hernandez unable to play for two more games, Porter turned to the in-form player.

This worked in the form of two assists and a shot that nearly crept into the far corner of the goal. But what was most noticeable about Russell-Rowe was his ability to win long balls and his hold-up play. Once he left the game in the 66th minute, the Black & Gold didn’t have this same type of play, which is good to see from a 19 year old.

Zawadzki followed up his impressive first career MLS start on Saturday with a second consecutive game in the middle of the park for Columbus. He was again effective on both sides of the ball, completing 82 percent of his passes while also intercepting three passes the other way, making eight recoveries and winning six of his nine duels. He also scored an MLS Goal of the Week candidate to get the visitors on the board early.

As he’s done three previous times this year, Sands came off the bench for Pedro Santos, who is just back from an injury and is still getting back to full match fitness, and helped the Crew close out a game. He did his job defensively with a clearance and a recovery and made good, smartly-timed runs forward, helping to keep Toronto’s defense honest.

Head coach Caleb Porter still likes the veteran core of his team but has mentioned on more than one occasion, including after the game, that there always has to be a plan with an eye on the future. These three players, along with midfielder Aidan Morris, create a nice youth base in which the Black & Gold build.

A new central midfield

Speaking of Zawadzki and Morris, let’s talk about this central midfield three, which includes Darlington Nagbe, Columbus has effectively rolled out the last two games. With Zawadzki playing as the holding, single-pivot player at the No. 6 and Morris and Nagbe as No. 8s, the Crew has gone to Real Salt Lake and Toronto and come away with four points in less than a week.

What this trio gives the Black & Gold is a nice complement of players in the middle of the park. Zawadzki is a nice blend of a player who can break up passes while still connecting the defense to the attack. If you aren’t specifically looking for him on the field, you often — except when he hits a shot from 20-plus yards out — don’t notice he’s there, which is what teams want in a No. 6.

With Zawadzki behind them, Morris and Nagbe can play higher up the pitch. This allows Morris to use his energy to roam as he normally does in a two-man midfield but not have to worry about being as defensive. Nagbe can take his technical ability and be a bigger part of Columbus’ offense because he trusts Zawadzki behind him. He can also make more forward runs, as he did for the Crew’s second goal, which allows him to contribute in a different way.

It’s fair to point out that this trio likely only happens because Artur is out with an injury, and it will be interesting to see what Porter does with his central midfield when the Brazilian is healthy again. But it’s certainly nice for the Black & Gold to have options as opposed to relying on the same two central midfielders as they did a year ago.

How it all might work when everyone is available

While this was not entirely a first-choice lineup for Columbus, which actually makes it that much sweeter for fans that the team went into Toronto and won, it did give us a look at how the Crew would play when all players are healthy and available for selection.

The assumption by many, myself included, was that Porter would revert back to his 4-2-3-1 formation that has worked so well throughout his career once his squad is healthy and the new Designated Player striker in Hernandez can take the field. That still might be the case with the Black & Gold going back to their opening-day lineup but with Hernandez up top for Berry. But Wednesday showed it doesn’t have to be that look, at least not always.

In the 3-5-2 formation Columbus played against TFC, the team once again showed a variation on how to line up that teams have to consider. Now imagine that lineup, possibly with Artur in for Morris or Zawadzki, with Hernandez as the striker. While Russell-Rowe played well in his first start, Hernandez is a different-level player and, alongside Lucas Zelarayan as a second striker, the Crew would be deadly in transition.

If the team wants to play a more possession-based style, Porter can roll out the 4-2-3-1 and play Hernandez up top by himself with Zelarayan supporting as a playmaker. The team has also used a 4-3-3 at times this year, typically when Zelarayan is not available, and Hernandez could operate in a fluid front three in that look, or play as a False 9. Hernandez’s versatility, combined with the change-ups the Black & Gold have developed this year that have made the team better defensively and created chances, means Porter will have plenty of options on how he wants to play against an opponent and keep the opposition on their toes.

The Road to success

While it might be hard to believe, Columbus has more points this year on the road (11) than at home at Field (10). For a team that has been criticized for its road form the last two seasons, the Crew has found a way to be successful away from home.

So far this year, the Black & Gold has gotten results in seven of the team’s nine road games. Columbus has earned results in its last three road games — two wins — and in five of its last six.

With the second road win of the year at BMO Field, the Crew has more road points than only five other Eastern Conference teams, all of which are above the MLS Cup playoff line.

Now if the Black & Gold can start to get regular results at home, Columbus will be in business.