Once the full-time whistle had chirped and the players walked toward midfield to greet one another, there was a brief moment – quick enough to be overlooked.
Its significance shouldn’t be, however.
After the Columbus Crew drew Real Salt Lake, 0-0, on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, Darlington Nagbe walked toward Sean Zawadzki, hugged the rookie and patted him on the back. It was a moment when one of the best MLS midfielders of the last decade celebrated the first game the Crew’s homegrown center midfielder. This wasn’t a torch being passed, but an acknowledgement that Zawadzki started in place of Artur and looked every bit as comfortable as a veteran.
“He was very comfortable, I thought he was excellent on the day, performed extremely well, both sides of the ball,” head coach Caleb Porter said of Zawadzki after the match. “It's not easy for a young player to step in, it's his first professional game for the First Team, other than (Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup). So, it's not easy to have a mentality, to have confidence and to be, I think as comfortable in possession and defensively as he was, so gives us really good confidence in him moving forward.”
The rookie was just one of the players who helped the Crew earn a valuable point on Saturday, but performances like that could be crucial for the team as they look to play eight games in 36 days. On the first occasion, Saturday, Columbus kept the second-best team in the Western Conference quiet and delivered a solid defensive showing.
“In this circumstance, we’ll take the point,” Porter said. “We'll take the point because, you know, again, the perspective is we're playing a very good team who's unbeaten at home. This is only the second time that they haven't won in eight games at home. They have six wins and now two draws. So, you know, out of the eight games, we're the second team to take a point off them. They’re number two in the west, you know, we have again a game where we have a bunch of guys out.”
Jonathan Mensah and Pedro Santos returned to the starting lineup, but Lucas Zelarayán, Artur, Derrick Etienne Jr., Erik Hurtado and Kevin Molino were all unavailable with injuries or an illness. “Cucho” Hernandez, who was signed by the club last week from Watford FC, remains unavailable until after the transfer window opens on July 7.
So, the takeaway from the scoreless draw with RSL was the point, but also a nice showing from younger players. In addition to Zawadzki’s debut, 20-year-old Aiden Morris also started in the midfield alongside Nagbe. Jacen Russell-Rowe and Mohamed Farsi from Crew 2 played for the second time in as many games. Will Sands also made an appearance as a substitute, while Alexandru Matan made his first appearance since April.
“We're going to play a lot of games in this second half of the year that are in compacted windows so we continue to build our depth,” Porter said. “Last year when we had to rotate, we would not get results, we'd lose a little confidence and then it was kind of a vicious cycle.
“Whereas this year, we're gaining confidence when we rotate, which increases our competition and training and some of the best competition we're getting is day in day out and in our squad games and in our small-sided games. That's where our mentality is being kind of groomed is on the training ground in our competition that we are creating with our depth this year.”
Saturday night proved the Crew’s depth pieces can play an important role for the Black & Gold for the season. That’s the long-term implications. As for the short term, the draw was about a Homegrown Player’s dream coming true.
“It's something I've dreamed of for a long time,” Zawadzki said of his debut. “Growing up in the Academy, making the drive for two hours both ways. So, it means a lot to me. And to do it with these guys, is even more special to me.”
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