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Crew tactical review: Youth spurs Black & Gold to victory vs. Toronto FC

The impact of Jacen Russel-Rowe and Sean Zawadzki led the Crew to a 2-1 road victory against TFC.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew got back to winning ways on Wednesday night with a 2-1 victory on the road against Toronto FC. While the return of Lucas Zelarayan from injury was exciting for all Crew fans, the game was controlled by the young players in midfielder Sean Zawadzki and forward Jacen Russel Rowe.

Along with the play of some Homegrown talent, the Black & Gold were set up to earn win by a strong set of tactics by Caleb Porter that allowed the team to take all three points back to Columbus. The head coach once again changed things up, confusing the home side enough to get an early lead and then changed to hold on in the second half.

Let’s dive into what the Crew did to get the win on the road.

The defensive impact of the 3-5-2

After seeing the Black & Gold set up in a 3-5-2 formation against Charlotte FC two weeks ago fans got to see just how this formation works for Columbus against another tough Eastern Conference opponent. What stood out though was the way the Crew’s defense performed throughout the game.

When in possession, center backs Jonathan Mensah and Milos Degenek drifted out toward the sideline to allow the ball to be switched to them in space. When TFC had the ball though, the wing backs dropped in alongside the center backs to allow the Black & Gold to have a strong defensive shell in a 5-3-2.

This is why Toronto had a hard time scoring all game, as Columbus defended in a low block and made it so congested in the penalty box with sometimes as many as five defenders and three midfielders all pitching in on their defensive duties. Granted, the Reds did score a goal, which was a defensive breakdown where the Crew midfielders didn’t put pressure on the ball and Mensah lost his mark. It was a bad mistake and the Black & Gold paid for it, but if they can have better communication and organization across the backline, Columbus will be even better defensively than the team already is with this type of play.

The midfield trio

After the midfield’s performance against Real Salt Lake over the weekend, Porter wanted to keep Zawadzki, Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris together for the game in Toronto to see how they could build on the display in the previous match. This worked out pretty well for Porter and the Crew because the trio was in sync.

Nagbe always brings the flair and Morris brings his motor, but Zawadzki was the standout in midfield. After banging in a superb outside-of-the-box goal on his first-ever shot in MLS, Zawadzki was all over the field, playing passes, switches and doing the dirty work defensively.

This midfield trio was everything the Black & Gold needed and will need going forward. Nagbe provides a leadership role and command to the group to make sure everyone is where they are supposed to be. Morris runs the entire field and puts in physical work without breaking a sweat. Zawadzki controls the tempo and makes smart choices when building up from the back, while also having a cannon shot it seems.

One of the interesting things the midfielders did in Toronto was drift wide into positions. Typically it was Morris on the left, but occasionally any of the three midfielders popped up out wide to allow Columbus to have width and for the wing backs to get higher up the field, and free up space for Lucas Zelarayan to drop in and receive the ball to feet.

Fans have not seen the last of these three players on the pitch, and the only problem Porter has now is deciding what to do with this group when Artur comes back from injury. That’s a pretty good problem to have.

Jacen Russel-Rowe and Lucas Zelarayan up top

The biggest surprise of Wednesday night was Russel-Rowe being instantly inserted into the starting lineup after being signed from Crew 2. It was a welcomed surprise from Crew fans and ended up being just what the Black & Gold needed.

Porter played both Zelarayan and Russel-Rowe as forwards so that they could provide an attacking threat without getting in each other’s way. For example, when Zelarayan is more comfortable dropping into the midfield and asking for the ball to his feet, Russel-Rowe made diagonal runs in behind the defense for the playmaker to find him. This diversity of runs gave Columbus multiple options of how to build up in attack as well as giving Zelarayan space to create without the other striker running into his space and bringing more defenders over.

Russel-Rowe also showed extreme maturity in how he was able to hold off defenders and wait for his trailing teammates to join him in attack, as well as being able to make different types of runs to keep the defense guessing. The return from injury for Zelarayan was a relatively quiet one, but it was productive because it got him some time to work with Russel-Rowe in a real game situation, as well as providing a chance to knock off some rust.