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Canadian teenager Jacen Russell-Rowe helps Columbus Crew past Toronto FC

TORONTO — Canadian teenager Jacen Russell-Rowe showed off his skill and sense of occasion Wednesday. The 19-year-old forward from nearby Brampton, Ont.
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Toronto FC midfielder Kosi Thompson, left, is stopped by Columbus Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room during first half MLS soccer action in Toronto on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jon Blacker

TORONTO — Canadian teenager Jacen Russell-Rowe showed off his skill and sense of occasion Wednesday.

The 19-year-old forward from nearby Brampton, Ont., who spent seven years with the Toronto FC academy, had two assists in his first MLS start to help the Columbus Crew defeat Toronto 2-1.

"It felt amazing," said Russell-Rowe. "Getting two assists, the win on the road. Just playing at BMO Field. All of that together makes it a very special night for me."

The Canadian youth international, who found out Monday he was starting in Toronto, had his mother, sister and girlfriend in the stands.

Sean Zawadzki, in just his second MLS outing, and Darlington Nagbe scored for Columbus, which led 2-0 after 30 minutes. 

Toronto, with Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo pulling the strings, had plenty of possession and chances but failed to convert until Jesus Jimenez scored in the 54th minute. 

The visitors, in comparison, scored on two of their three shots on target. Columbus (5-5-6) then pulled men behind the ball to protect its lead as Toronto kept attacking.

Toronto (5-9-3) outshot Columbus 19-10 (with seven shots on target) and had 63.9 per cent possession before an announced crowd of 21,289.

Toronto coach Bob Bradley pointed to "a couple of careless moments" with the ball and poor finishing for the loss.

"(The) quality in and around the box was not what you need in a game like that, especially when you go behind," he added.

Toronto came into the game having lost just one of its last seven outings (4-1-2) in all competitions with reinforcements on hand. Italian star forward Lorenzo Insigne and veteran defender Domenico Criscito await the MLS secondary transfer window opening July 7 to take the field for TFC. Both were in the stands Wednesday.

Russell-Rowe signed a first-team deal with Columbus earlier Wednesday after leading the MLS Next Pro League with 11 goals for Crew 2. He had seen just 34 minutes of MLS action prior to his first start, making two substitute appearances earlier this month on a short-term loan from Crew 2.

And he played his part in the opening goal, teeing the ball up for Zawadzki who hammered a left-footed shot from outside the penalty box high into the goal past Alex Bono in the 18th minute. It was a first MLS goal for Zawadzki, a former Crew academy product who played collegiate soccer at Georgetown.

Russell-Rowe picked up another assist in the 30th minute, feeding Nagbe on a rapid-fire counterattack that saw the Crew cut through the Toronto defence like butter. The Nagbe goal — his third of the season — came one minute after Curaçao international 'keeper Eloy Room made a fine stop to deny Kosi Thompson after a Pozuelo pass carved open the Columbus backline.

Jimenez pulled one back for Toronto in the 54th minute, rising high to head home a perfect Pozuelo cross for his eighth goal of the season. Russell-Rowe exited in the 66th minute after an impressive return home.

Asked about Russell-Rowe, Bradley said Toronto couldn't sign every forward in its system, noting TFC had opted for the likes of Deandre Kerr and Ayo Akinola.

Russell-Rowe said he just decided on a different career path

"It didn't work out with Toronto. And then I had the opportunity to be with the Crew, which is a very big organization. And at the end of the day, I have no regrets."

Columbus has in-depth knowledge of Toronto's talent with president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko, vice-president Jaime McMillan and assistant GM Corey Wray all having worked for TFC.

Toronto, in the midst of a five-game homestand, had won two straight at home but saw its record at BMO Field drop to 5-4-0 this season compared to 0-5-3 on the road. TFC’s previous eight MLS wins, dating back to September, all came at home, as have 26 of the 31 points the team earned over that period.

Toronto hosts Seattle on Saturday.

While Columbus arrived unbeaten in its last three matches (1-0-2), the injury-riddled Crew had dug themselves a hole following a 2-0-2 start to the season that included a 2-1 victory over visiting Toronto. Columbus had just one win in its previous six league outings (1-2-3).

Prior to Wednesday, 10 of Columbus’ 18 goals this season came in the first four games. Coming off a pair of ties, the Crew had managed just three goals in their last five outings (1-2-2).

Bono returned in goal for Toronto, replacing Quentin Westberg who took a knock to the leg in a jarring collision in Saturday's 2-1 win over Atlanta. Bono started the first 13 league games this season before giving way to Westberg. 

Mexican defender Carlos Salcedo, who like Westberg did not train Tuesday, was also missing. Bradley said Salcedo was dealing with a "family situation."

"He has our full support," he said.

Toronto's nine-man bench featured eight Canadians including star midfielder Jonathan Osorio. Bradley had five Canadian starters.

Star attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, an Argentine-born designated player who represents Armenia internationally, returned to the Columbus lineup for the first time since May 21. 

Columbus was without Brazil’s Artur and Erik Hurtado. Derrick Etienne Jr., and Kevin Molino started on the bench after injury absences. Zelarayan lasted 59 minutes before he was replaced by Etienne.

Zelarayan, Etienne and Hurtado had accounted for 10 of the Crew’s 18 league goals prior to Wednesday.

Hoping to help spark the offence, Columbus has signed 23-year-old Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez as a young designated player from England’s Watford. Hernandez is slated to be introduced in Columbus on Friday.

TFC brought on Kerr and Osorio to open the second half, replacing Akinola and Ralph Priso. Akinola had a team-low 11 touches in the first half.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press