The Crew’s youth shines in demolition of Atlanta United

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MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Black & Gold needed young players to step up with veterans out and they did in a big way.

In the “Battle of the Death Star” at Field, the force was with the Columbus Crew on Saturday night. The Crew demolished Eastern Conference leaders Atlanta United 6-1, a score Black & Gold fans haven’t heard in a long time.

With several players absent for the Black & Gold due to injury, such as forward Cucho Hernandez and midfielder Kevin Molino, as well as goalkeeper Eloy Room, center back Milos Degenek and playmaker Lucas Zelarayan away on international duty, head coach Wilfried Nancy called on young player to step up. They did.

The scoresheet was dominated by Columbus players under the age of 23, many of whom had notable firsts for the Crew against Atlanta.

Midfielder Aidan Morris’ first-ever MLS goal, a diving Robin van Persie-esque header, gave the Black & Gold the lead in the 14th minute set up by a deflected cross from 23-year-old midfielder Alexandru Matan. The 21-year-old Crew Academy product has cemented his place in the starting lineup since signing as a Homegrown player in January 2020. Once again, Morris was a dominating presence in Columbus’ midfield against Atlanta, completing 62 of his 66 attempted passes, but this time capped the performance with a goal.

A 47th minute cross from 20-year-old forward Jacen Russell-Rowe set up veteran signing Christian Ramirez’s first goal of the night. Russell-Rowe later got on the scoresheet himself, finding the ball just on the edge of the penalty box and slotting it into the goal with first-time finish.

In Russell-Rowe’s most promising performance as an MLS player. the former MLS NEXT Pro MVP was constantly a threat in attack, linking up well with Ramirez in front of goal and putting pressure on Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Russell-Rowe was crowned as the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro season’s Golden Boot winner, scoring 21 goals as Crew 2 won the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Cup. His performance against United and Hernandez’s absence for the next few weeks with a knee injury means Russell-Rowe will certainly be given more opportunities by Nancy to build on this win and prove his abilities in front ofgoal.

Center back Philip Quinton, 21, who recently signed a contract with the first team following a stellar 2022 MLS NEXT Pro season with Crew 2, headed in his first-ever MLS goal in the 51st minute off a cross from Matan. Quinton made his MLS debut in the season-opening 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union but has been a strong presence at the back since then. Quinton is one of just two players, along with fellow defender Steven Moreria, to play every minute of the Crew’s 2023 MLS campaign so far.

With the Black & Gold heading toward a 5-1 win in the dying moments of the match, 21-year-old forward Max Arfsten decided the match was not over yet. Arfsten met a cross with a well-placed, one-touch finish following a dazzling solo run and pass by 22-year-old left wing back Will Sands. Columbus selected Arfsten with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft from MLS NEXT Pro side San Jose Earthquakes II. Arfsten scored on his first-ever shot in a Crew jersey.

There were also impressive displays from defenders Mohamed Farsi and Gustavo Vallecilla, both 23. Farsi was a constant threat on the right flank, providing an assist for Russell-Rowe’s goal in the 68th minute. Vallecilla, who recently signed on loan from the Colorado Rapids, looked comfortable in the three-man back line that kept Atlanta’s attack at bay.

In goal, Nancy elected to give 22-year-old goalkeeper Patrick Schulte his second start for the Black & Gold instead of selecting veteran goalkeeper Evan Bush in place of Room. Although United was not much of an attacking threat this match, Schulte looked comfortable when called upon. Schulte conceded four goals in his debut for Columbus against the Union this season, but it seems as though Nancy made the right decision to give the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Goalkeeper of the Year another opportunity.

With the Crew facing an all-but-certain victory, Nancy gave another player his MLS debut. Defender Keegan Hughes, 22, came on as a substitute in the 89th minute to see out the Black & Gold’s second win of the season. Hughes is a Crew Academy product who joined the first team this winter following a successful four-year playing career at Stanford University.

Nancy spoke highly of his younger players who made the most of their chance to impress after the win against the Five Stripes.

“I like to give opportunities to the players when this is the moment for them and because they deserve it. This is not about the age, it’s all about the profile,” Nancy said.

“I think the veterans on this team, I think we do a good job of bringing guys along who haven’t been at this level that long or are new to this league.”

Ramirez was the Black & Gold’s man of the match on Saturday but was impressed by what he saw from his teammates, specifically forward compatriot Russell-Rowe.

“There is just sometimes moments for all young guys where you get caught up in the game and you lose track of something and one little slip up can cost us a goal. So just continuing to lead those guys in certain situations and guide them,” Ramirez said. “But you saw in the second half, (Jacen) was expressing himself with his movement and his little flicks. All those young guys, as long as they continue to put the work in and learn, they’re a group of young boys who want to learn and anytime that any of the veterans say something or the coaches say something they take it in and they continue to push forward and you’re just going to see more results of that.”

Arfsten acknowledged the need for younger players to step up in the absence of Hernandez and Zelarayan and commented how he noticed the momentum seemed to favor the Crew as the match went on.

“We knew the other guys would kind of have to step up and sort of take on the role. But when I was a sub and I was watching the game, it just looked like everything was clicking,” Arfsten said. “We had possession of the ball, we were dominating, looked comfortable, especially in the final third.”

Nancy’s decision to play young players hasn’t worked perfectly in all matches this season, but the head coach pulled all the right strings against Atlanta and his players rewarded him for his trust.

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