By Ramon Chavez, MLSNEXTPro.com
The Eastern Conference leader Columbus Crew 2 earned their sixth consecutive victory Sunday after defeating NYCFC II by 1-0 at Belson Stadium in Queens, New York.
Jacen Russell-Rowe continued his torrid start to the season and scored his fifth goal of the campaign in the 54th minute. Crew 2 would go down a man in the 71st minute after Phillip Quinton was given a red card, but managed to keep the hosts at bay to walk away with the victory.
Crew 2 controlled the initial stages of the game but could not create any substantial danger as the NYCFC II defense held firm.
NYCFC II showed why they are the league leaders in goals scored by constructing dangerous counters and relying on their athleticism to put the Crew 2 defense on its heels. Their most dangerous chance came right before halftime when midfielder El Mahdi Youssoufi hit the crossbar following a set-piece cross into the box.
With neither team unable to get on the board in the early minutes of the game, the play turned physical, with the referee issuing a total of four yellow cards in the first 45 minutes of the game to get the game under control, with three issued to NYCFC II and one to Crew 2.
Crew 2 came back from halftime searching for their first goal and employed their pressing wonderfully in the 54th minute when they stole the ball near the end line. The resulting steal allowed Alexandru Matan to find an open Jacen Russell-Rowe near the six-yard box, who calmly put the ball in the back of the net with a left-footed shot.
NYCFC II held the advantage in the second half dominating close to 60% of possession but could not crack through one of MLS NEXT Pro's best defenses even with Crew 2 down to 10 men.
Offensively, NYCFC II more than doubled Crew 2's total shots with 17 but could not test Crew 2's keeper enough, with only three of those shots being on target. Today's result marked the first time NYCFC II was held scoreless in eight games.
After today's win, Columbus Crew 2 will host TFCII at home next Saturday, while NYCFC II will face off against Chicago Fire II at home next week.
The Story: Is Crew 2 the best team in the league?
Columbus Crew 2 showed against NYCFC II Sunday that they can get results, even when they aren't pretty. In what was a tough test mentally and on the field, Crew 2 kept their composure and withstood the hurdles they faced today, even while being a man down.
With Sunday's result, Crew 2 now have 18 points, three more than their closest rival in New England Revolution II. In the Western Conference, Houston Dynamo 2 leads MLS NEXT Pro with 19 total points but with the advantage of playing one extra game.
If you take a closer look at the numbers, both teams have a goal differential of +8. But while Dynamo 2 may have better offensive output, Crew 2 has shined in keeping their opponents away from the goal, only giving three goals in 7 games. Even more impressive is that since Crew 2 began their six-game winning streak in early April, their defense has only allowed one goal in 6 games.
You also can't talk about Crew 2 without mentioning Jacen Russell-Rowe and his spectacular offensive numbers.
After knocking in the game's only goal today, Russell-Rowe has now scored in five consecutive games. His five goals have now tied him for second place in the league along with Dynamo 2's Beto Avila and just behind April's MLS NEXT Pro's Player of the Month Alfonso Ocampo-Chávez, who has six.
If Russell-Rowe can continue to help Columbus Crew 2 extend their winning streak, there's no doubt he'll be a candidate for MLS NEXT Pro Player of the Month in May.