National Writer: Charles Boehm

Columbus Crew's Jacen Russell-Rowe turns MLS NEXT Pro rise into statement vs. old club

Jacen Russell-Rowe spent some seven years in Toronto FC’s academy system, plenty of time to envision moments like Wednesday night at BMO Field, where he made his first career MLS start as his mother, sister and girlfriend looked on.

Seizing that opportunity with both hands by notching two assists in a 2-1 win over an Eastern Conference competitor, he made sure it was indeed a dream performance.

What he surely didn’t expect during those adolescent years was that he’d do all that while clad in the bright yellow of the Columbus Crew – burning his hometown club as a member of the away team, on the same day the Ohio side officially sent $50,000 in General Allocation Money to TFC to acquire his rights and sign him to a first-team contract.

“It felt amazing. Getting two assists, the win on the road, just being, playing at BMO Field, all of that together just makes it a very special night for me – and first start,” Russell-Rowe told reporters after the match, revealing that head coach Caleb Porter had told him on Monday that he’d get the start against his former club.

"I have no regrets"

He’s focused on his team’s objectives and maintains he harbors no bad blood against TFC – “I wouldn't necessarily say I had a grudge or had a point to prove,” he said. But Russell-Rowe acknowledged that “adrenaline was high” on such an emotion-charged occasion, and notably got barked at by Jonathan Osorio after a full-blooded, late slide tackle on the Toronto veteran.

“It was just about finding what's best for me. Obviously, it didn't work out with Toronto. And then I had the opportunity to be with the Crew, which is a very big organization,” said Russell-Rowe. "At the end of the day, I have no regrets.”

The 19-year-old striker earned this chance by lighting up MLS NEXT Pro in its inaugural season, leading the developmental league’s golden boot race with 11 goals in 11 games to steer Crew 2 to the top of both the Eastern Conference and overall standings.

On Wednesday, though, he played provider, dropping an inviting layoff for fellow youngster Sean Zawadzki to rifle home from just outside the penalty box before slipping a lovely pass to Darlington Nagbe for the eventual game-winner.

“It's a great platform,” Russell-Rowe said of MLS NEXT Pro, where he's the eighth player to ink a first-team deal. “In that league, you're playing against a lot of academy guys who are trying to make that next step. Some guys are just signed and there's also some experienced players that would be reserve players on MLS teams, I remember. It definitely gets you ready, gets you sharp because I feel like it’s a step up, definitely technically.”

If the new competition needed a success story to underline the reasons for its launch, the Canadian youth international just became one.

“This is obviously a job,” said Porter of the Brampton native, “we’ve all coached a lot of games, played a lot of games. But it's pretty special when you have a player like Jacen Russell-Rowe who proves himself with Crew 2 and gets an opportunity with the first team, at first being loaned up and training with us a lot. And we just felt like he earned the right to be signed, and he earned the right to start this game.

“It's really cool to see a 19-year-old kid who has a ton of talent get his first debut against his former club – [in] his hometown, that's a little bit of icing on the cake.”

Surplus to requirements?

Russell-Rowe was a victim of a numbers game at TFC, part of a talent-rich crop of rising academy prospects in which others were rated more highly, perceived to be more ready for the big time.

“When you have a bunch of guys, Ayo [Akinola], Deandre [Kerr], people that assessed all these guys – you don't have room for everybody,” said head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley on Wednesday night when asked about the TFC ex who’d just sliced up his Reds. “Columbus took him for their second team, with the idea that if he did well, they could move him up.

“Give it time,” he added, “if he turns out to be better than Deandre, better than Ayo, better than other players. Even in training every day, if you try to develop guys as No. 9s, you can't have five No. 9s in training. We made the decision to sign Deandre to a homegrown [contract]. I think the feeling was that Jacen would be perhaps offered a second contract, but didn't want to do it here. So that led to a discussion, and if a player has gone out, you want to make sure that if things work out for him, you get something in return.”

Russell-Rowe elected to move on to a new environment, joining the University of Maryland’s powerhouse NCAA program. He weathered the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic to experience two seasons of college soccer (2020-21) before the call arrived from a Columbus outfit led by several former TFC executives who knew about his qualities as they sought to replenish an aging roster with new blood.

“We definitely have a mature team, everybody knows that,” said Porter, whose side is now undefeated in four as they recover from a 1W-4L-1D slump across all competitions in April. “We need to make sure we have good succession planning underneath, and that was one of the initiatives that our club had, and one of the goals that I had as well, to play some more young guys this year. We’ve shown that as a club, and I'm trusting some of these young guys, and we're getting the job done. We’re preparing them every day and they're talented.”

Right timing

The Crew have made a habit of picking up players like Russell-Rowe and New York City FC product Will Sands, who didn’t make the cut at other clubs’ academies or otherwise needed a second chance, bolstering their own homegrown ranks, which include Zawadzki and Aidan Morris.

“When you prepare kids mentally and tactically and you give them confidence and you put them in the game, you can see the confidence, it's very evident,” said Porter.

“I don't think there's ever any reason to second-guess why didn't this club take this guy or that guy; sometimes it depends a lot on the timing. Might have a really good 1-2 left back [depth chart], you might have another young, really young left back. Sometimes there have been some really good players in academies that just have been blocked by other good young players. So I think the timing for us was right to get Will Sands and Jacen Russell-Rowe.”

Russell-Rowe, who made two substitute appearances for Columbus before earning a full-time promotion from Crew 2, must now navigate an in-flux forward corps in Ohio. The 2020 MLS Cup champions added club-record signing Cucho Hernandez from Watford the other week, presenting a tough road to consistent minutes.

But as the curtain dropped on his big night, one he and Columbus hope is only the first of many, Russell-Rowe paid tribute to the guidance of Porter, Crew 2 coach Laurent Courtois and their assistants. He'll lean on them moving forward.

“I have a great coaching staff, they really help me out. They get my mind right, every day of training,” he said. “Through Crew 2 and the first team coaches, they're always helping me out, always giving me direction. They give me a lot to think about and I'm a player who likes to think, and to learn. So I feel like I've been able to add a lot of things to my game over the last five months that have helped me get to this level.”