It’s been a season of ups and downs for Argentine attacker Lucas Zelarayan. After becoming, the Columbus Crew’s record signing in the offseason, Zelarayan has multiple streaks of showing off his brilliance for the Black & Gold followed by stretches of injuries and missing time. Crew fans haven’t been able to see the playmaker on a consistent basis throughout the year.
Zelarayan started the first four games of the regular season for Columbus, contributing one goal and two assists in the process. But at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Zelarayan picked up a knock on his ankle that he initially played through before coming off the bench in the third group game.
When the Black & Gold returned to play in home markets, Zealarayn missed two games due to the ankle injury and the team being extra cautious with their No. 10. Zelarayan then had a run of two starts, scoring the game-winning goal in an important 1-0 win against the Philadelphia Union, before he sat out two more contests with a knee issue. Zelarayan then came off the bench against Nashville SC, recording an assist in 20 minutes, in mid-September before starting three matches in a row for the Crew with a goal and an assist.
It was in the 2-2 draw at FC Dallas on Oct. 3 when Zelarayan suffered his latest injury. Nearing the end of the half, the Argentine reached for a bouncing ball in the penalty box and stepped awkwardly, going down and not getting up for several minutes. He was replaced after halftime with a muscle issue and Black & Gold fans didn’t see him again until Saturday’s 1-1 draw at the Houston Dynamo when he came off the bench for 45 minutes.
But with the regular season drawing to a close, the hope is that this is the time the playmaker will be back for good.
“I had never had consecutive injuries like these in the past,” Zelarayan reflected on Tuesday. “Obviously with the quarantine and having such a long break made it difficult. I couldn’t do a lot of the things I used to do to take care of my body like working on my posture and I believe that has led me to have these injuries in such a short period of time. But I feel better now, I’m fully recovered and I hope it can continue this way until the end of the (season).”
Zelarayan’s longest stretch of games started is four but there was a major gap between the first game (March 3) to the fourth (July 16) as that stretch came at the beginning of the season, prior to the COVID-19 break. Since then, he has started only five games and in those five starts, he has scored two goals.
For a new player in a new country, it can be taxing mentally in a normal season. When you can’t play and are quarantined during a pandemic, being alone and not playing gets even more difficult. Luckily, Zelarayan found an avenue to stay positive while he was injured.
“I’ve been working on it with my psychologist,” he said. “I always try to express my feelings in our sessions so we can work on my mental strength. It’s about remaining strong and visualizing myself on the field, playing so that when I actually get to return, I’m where I need to be and don’t feel the impact of the time I missed. And I’ve noticed the results.
“And I’ve also been working with the team physical therapist so I’m ready to play. I’m trying to use any support I can get to help in this first year in a new country. I’m struggling a little bit with the language and can’t communicate the way I want, but I’m getting a lot of help and I feel very well now.”
It now seems like Zelarayan will be able to find a rhythm now that the Crew has a consistent schedule. While it remains congested with four games in 15 days to end the season, it’s one of the few times Columbus has had a structured schedule — with games on Wednesdays and Sundays going forward — for all of 2020 barring any unforeseen circumstances.
With a consistent schedule of training and games, the Black & Gold will have a chance to get back into the form fans saw from the team early in the season. Zealarayan hopes to have a run of healthy matches as he understands how important it is for this team to stay healthy and develop a consistent rhythm.
“We’ll try and prepare the best we can in these two weeks so we can start the playoffs well,” he said. “It’s the most important part of the season and we need to have everyone at 100 percent.”