A pair of Columbus Crew SC young guns made the most of their opportunities at playing time on Saturday night.
Rookies Alex Crognale and Niko Hansen both contributed assists on the score sheet in Crew SC’s 2-1 win over Toronto FC. The result propelled the club to a tie with the Portland Timbers for the most points in Major League Soccer (13).
Columbus Crew SC Young Guns Help Facilitate Win Over Toronto FC
Harrison Afful and Federico Higuain returned to the starting XI after sitting out last week’s 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire due to injuries. The most eye-opening change to the lineup came in the form of Hansen, who started for the first time in his MLS career. Kekuta Manneh made his first appearance on the bench since signing with the club.
Saturday’s game also served as a milestone of sorts for one Wil Trapp. It marked the Crew SC captain’s 100th appearance in a Black and Gold uniform. He joins Higuain, Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay as the only players on the club’s current roster to reach that threshold.
The road side opened up the scoring in the 21st minute. And it came off the head of forward Jozy Altidore. The USMNT number nine glanced it past Crew SC goalkeeper Zach Steffen off a corner kick from Victor Vázquez for his third goal of the 2017 season.
16 minutes later, Crew SC answered courtesy of their own big name striker in Ola Kamara. The Norwegian center forward took advantage of a well-weighted through ball from Federico Higuain and brilliant square ball from Hansen who was making a diagonal run into the box. Kamara tapped the ball into a virtually empty net for his fourth of the year.
But the home team wasn’t finished. In the 44th minute, Higuain belted in a corner kick that Crognale headed down towards the far post. There, Meram redirected it into the net to give Crew SC a 2-1 lead. Like Kamara, it marked tally number four of the year for the Columbus left winger.
Such a spirited fightback speaks to a renewed sense of belief the club enjoys in 2017 after last year’s less than stellar campaign.
“I think we struggled to find our way consistently last year,” manager Gregg Berhalter told MLSSoccer.com. “We never really got that momentum, (the feeling) that guys got the belief that late in the game, we’re gonna be OK.”
“And you can see it this year that the guys are starting to believe that they can go down, (even) late in games (it’s) no problem, they keep grinding and credit to them.”
Crognale’s defensive contribution played a key role in Crew SC preserving the result. Overall, he registered six clearances and four interceptions, both of which led the team. And his ability to win an aerial duel in the box in the attacking half made it possible for Meram to put in the game-winner.
The first-year Homegrown possesses a total package skill set according to his coach. And it fits in well with the crop of central defenders on the Crew SC roster.
“His work rate, his understanding of the game, his competitive nature, his leadership, all those things have been outstanding,” Berhalter told Last Word On Sports. “Him, together with Nico Naess, with Jonathan (Mensah), with Lalas (Abubakar) and Josh Williams, it’s a center back group that we’re comfortable with at the moment.”
The work of both Crognale and Hansen in a still young season hasn’t gone unnoticed by their team’s captain.
“They’ve stepped into big games and responded extremely well,” Trapp emphasized. “(You have) two assists for two rookies tonight against one of the strongest teams we’re going to play in the Eastern Conference.”
“And then, not to mention the other side of the ball where Alex is having to dig in against probably two of the most deadly strikers in the league. So these are great experiences for them and great to see young guys responding in adverse situations.”
That response to initial adversity has the Black and Gold currently positioned favorably in the MLS standings. And it’s something that wasn’t there last year. Two of the club’s four wins this season came while giving up the first goal. To put that in perspective, Columbus obtained the full three points from a match just once last year facing the same situation.
Crew SC returns to the road next Saturday for their first meeting of the year with the New York Red Bulls. Kickoff is set for 7:30 PM ET with MSG, CW Columbus, Spectrum Sports OH and MLS Live providing television coverage.
Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications