The Columbus Crew knew they had two great attacking options at the end of last season, but they also knew they needed more. The Crew were carried by U.S. National Team mainstay Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos, as the duo were responsible for 24 of the 39 total goals in addition to a combined eight assists. The Crew’s 39 goals were third worst in the MLS, and if the team planned on contending, they needed a splash.
The Crew got their splash by signing Argentine midfielder Lucas Zelarayan. Zelarayan was signed for a club-record fee from Mexican side Tigres UANL after he provided 23 goals and 14 assists in just about four years.
At the time of his signing, Columbus President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko said, “We expect Lucas to be both a leader and difference maker in our squad,” (via columbuscrewsc.com) It’s fair to say Zelarayan has lived up to expectations so far.
In his debut, Zelarayan had a moment of pure magic. In the 55th minute of a scoreless tie against New York City FC, Zelarayan made a cut towards the goal where the ball was played in by defender Harrison Afful.
Zelarayan proceeded to shrug off a defender draped all over him with a touch of the outside of his foot, which took a second defender out of the play, before beating NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson with a strike in the top left corner. The goal proved to be the game winner and helped Zelarayan be named to the MLS Team of the Week.
Crew head coach Caleb Porter, the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year, spoke wonders of Zelarayan after the game.
“I’ve been telling you guys that he’s a special player,” Porter said. “He’s a difference maker and that’s why we brought him to [Columbus].” (via columbuscrewsc.com)
In the next game, Zelarayan’s quality showed once again in a matchup against reigning MLS Cup champions the Seattle Sounders. Former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Stefan Frei was forced to make two saves against Zelarayan in the first half.
Columbus would eventually break through in the 33rd minute with a Gyasi Zardes goal. Even though Zelarayan was not credited with a goal or assist, he was still the mastermind that put the goal in motion.
Zelarayan’s cut inside drew two defenders in opening up the entire middle and right side of the field for Luis Diaz to eventually receive the ball and cross it in to Gyasi Zardes to finish.
Zelarayan’s creativity and knack for opening up spaces in the field has been on full display, and his affect on the offense has been seen in both of the Crew’s early season matches.
The game ended in a 1-1 tie, and after the game, Porter made it clear he has higher expectations for the team in Zelarayan’s first year.
“Normally I feel good about a draw on the road against last year’s MLS Cup Champion on their home pitch, but I think our standards have raised,” Porter said (via columbuscrewsc.com).
Porter has every reason to feel this way, as the team has taken four points against two teams who were in the playoffs last season. With the team returning its offensive duo in Zardes and Santos, a defense that was tied for fourth best in the Eastern Conference and an emerging star in Zelarayan, there’s a good chance the Crew could find themselves playing postseason soccer.