Sunday’s arrival of Lucas Zelarayan was many things to many people. The supporters in the private terminal greeted the player who will take the mantle of playmaker, Caleb Porter got the player who will make the offense run, the owners clearly stated their ambition, ferrying their Eight Million Dollar Man via the Edwards family’s private jet, and the player, he gets a chance to lead a team into a new stadium and a new era.
It is a moment that was unthinkable during any previous era of the Black & Gold.
The excitement is obvious for the fans. Beyond the record transfer fee, Zelarayan is a player with a pedigree. He moves the needle to the soccer savvy.
Zelarayan was a key player on a Tigres team that won three titles during his time with the club. He's a winner and a leader. He also promises to continue the line of Argentine playmakers at the club. Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Federico Higuain became legends during their tenure in Columbus.
To call Porter’s first year in charge uneven is an understatement. The team struggled through a historic swoon during the summer where they lost 13 in 15 games, but rebounded down the stretch, losing twice in the final third of the season. It’s clear that this team was missing a difference maker. In Zelarayan he has one. In Porter’s words, “he’s going to be the brains of (the) team and run (the) attack”.
In the system that Porter wants to run, Zelarayan is the key. Offseason signing Darlington Nagbe is an important player who supplies the rhythm to the team and free transfer Vito Wormgoor fortifies a defense, but Zelarayan is the linchpin on offense allowing Luis Diaz to stretch the field and Pedro Santos to be the second playmaker while supplying Gyasi Zardes with service.
Team ownership has already spent more than Zelarayan’s transfer fee in breaking ground on a new stadium in the Arena District, but this is another sign that they can entice a player “you’d pay to see” in Porter’s words to Columbus. A player of Zelarayan’s calibre comes at a price and that was no object to the Haslams and Edwards family.
“It’s absolutely a new level for the Crew” echoed team President Tim Bezbatchenko, “It’s about what’s happening on the field. Are you winning games?”
The team expects that Zelarayan is a part of a team that will return to the playoffs and challenge for the top spots in the conference.
In the post arrival media scrum, Zelarayan previously opaque reasons became clearer. He’s sold on the project - from ownership, front office, coaches, players, and stadium. He was a complimentary player on Tigres run, now he is the leader of a team that’s focused on a bright future.
Beyond the talk of the project, Zelarayan said that the Columbus Crew is a team that’s known in Argentina. He recalled watching Guille play and win in Columbus. From his comments, it seems there’s at least a small part of him that wants to pick up that legacy.
Zelarayan is no Guille. He’s also no Higuain. He’s younger than both players when they arrived in Columbus. Zelarayan hasn’t run up large scoring numbers, but his talents are apparent in transition. He’s dangerous with the ball at his feet and the defense backpedaling. After the methodical attack of the late Berhalter era and the disjointed transition to Porter’s philosophy, the Crew offense is going to look a lot different.
The hard work of landing a game changing player is over. The harder work of proving it on the field starts. The offseason has marked a change of direction for the Black & Gold, but now they have to show the moves paid off and this team can climb the standings and challenge for silverware. Players report on Saturday and in less than two months the games count for Zelarayan and the Crew.