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Anatomy of a Goal: Zelarayan and the Crew slice through Atlanta with 23 passes

This week we look at Lucas Zelarayan’s beautiful team goal against Atlanta United.

Welcome back to the Anatomy of a Goal, where each week we dissect one goal (or near goal) from the Columbus Crew’s previous match.

For match 23, the final match of the 2020 MLS regular season, we take a look at Lucas Zelarayan’s 28th minute goal that gave the Crew a 1-0 lead as part of their 2-1 win against Atlanta United on Decision Day.

Here’s a look at the goal from Columbus’s No. 10.

The Black & Gold followed up last Sunday’s gritty win against the Philadelphia Union with a disappointing loss at 10-man Orlando City on Wednesday. Entering their Decision Day match against Atlanta, the Crew needed a win to guarantee a home playoff game.

Sunday’s match started off brightly before Columbus started to cede possession to the Five Stripes. The half hit it’s nadir when Eloy Room took down Jon Gallagher in the penalty box for a United penalty. Fortunately, referee Ismail Elfath jogged over to the VAR monitor and overturned his own penalty call, bailing out the Black & Gold.

Zelarayan’s opening goal, one of the most comprehensive team goals by the Crew this season, comes on the heels of the overturned penalty. This 23-pass goal begins with Room playing the ball to Josh Williams.

Williams turns up the field and quickly finds Artur.

Artur drops the ball right back to Williams as Atlanta brings pressure. Milton Valenzuela makes a run up the left side of the field forcing Jurgen Damm to decide between pressuring Williams and marking the Columbus left back.

Damm checks to Valenzuela, giving Williams additional time to survey his options.

Williams decides to reset and drops the ball all the way to Room.

Room switches the point of attack to the right side of the field with a pass out to Jonathan Mensah.

Marcelino Moreno cuts toward Mensah to provide pressure. Artur sees this move and opens himself up to a pass around Moreno. Ezequiel Barco has dropped toward the midfield, opening space for Artur’s run.

Mensah spots Artur’s move and plays a quick pass around Moreno toward his teammate. Jef Larentowicz sprints toward the Black & Gold’s midfielder in an attempt to quickly win the ball off of him.

Larentowicz’s defensive move frees up Zelarayan who drifts toward Artur. Artur keeps his head on a swivel and is able to see both Larentowicz’s impending pressure and Zelarayan stepping into the space vacated by Atlanta’s captain. Artur lets the ball roll in front of him and hits a perfect first touch pass toward his No. 10.

Zelarayan takes a touch toward midfield and has four options. He can play a pass up the sideline to Derrick Etienne, play a pass forward to Pedro Santos, attempt to beat Emerson Hyndman off the dribble or hit a square pass to Darlington Nagbe who is running forward just behind Zelarayan.

The Crew’s No. 10 takes a touch and quickly plays a pass over to Nagbe.

Nagbe carries the ball into the Five Stripes’ territory as Hyndman brings pressure.

Nagbe spots Valenzuela and plays a ball out to the young Argentine on the left sideline.

Valenzuela takes one touch and plays a pass up the sideline into the path of Santos.

Santos picks the ball up under pressure from Damm and Franco Escobar. The Columbus winger must now decide whether to continue to carry the ball toward the corner or to somehow play a quick pass to Valenzuela, who has continued his run toward the goal.

Santos chooses the more difficult option and back-heels a pass back into the path of Valenzuela.

The back-heel beats both Escobar and Damm as it heads toward the Black & Gold’s left back.

Valenzuela uses his fist touch to keep the ball away from Hyndman and plays a quick drop to Nagbe.

Nagbe gathers the ball and hits a long pass on the ground back to Artur.

Artur surveys his options but does not find anything promising toward the Atlanta goal. He turns the ball back toward midfield.

The Brazilian midfielder plays a safe drop back to his captain.

Mensah takes one touch to collect the ball and plays a quick pass up the sideline to Harrison Afful.

Barco blocks Afful’s pass forward until Artur is able to move into an open space for a quick, safe pass.

Artur carries the ball out of danger before dropping it all the way back to Mensah.

Moreno cuts toward Mensah while Gallagher blocks a pass toward Williams. Artur shuffles into the space between the two Atlanta defenders and opens himself up to a simple pass from Mensah.

Artur turns toward the midfield under consistent pressure from Moreno. Williams steps forward and his teammate hits a square pass his way.

Williams easily picks up the ball and lets a heavy touch send it forward. The Columbus center back does something here that he’s done multiple times this season — with the defense compacted centrally or shifted to the right side, he carries the ball until the opposing defense provides pressure. By doing this, Williams both moves the ball forward and forces a Five Stripes defender to put pressure on him instead of one of the Black & Gold attackers.

This simple act of carrying the ball forward is what sets Williams apart from his center back teammates. While Mensah might be the better passer or on-ball defender, Williams confidence in carrying the ball forward has been immensely valuable to the Crew and has been a feature of these breakdowns multiple times this season.

Hyndman steps up to defend leaving Williams with four options. The defender can play a pass forward to Gyasi Zardes, attempt to beat Hyndman off the dribble, play a pass up the sideline to Santos or a drop pass to Artur.

Williams opts for the safe pass up the left flank to Santos.

Escobar steps out to cover Santos, leaving the winger with three options. He can play a pass up the sideline to Valenzuela, hit a pass over Escobar to Zardes or attempt to beat Escobar off the dribble.

Santos lobs a pass over Escobar toward Zardes.

Zardes bodies up Miles Robinson and deftly settles the ball into the path of Valenzuela who has made a run behind Damm.

Valenzuela picks up the ball and carries it toward Fernando Meza. This forces Meza to stop for a moment, allowing Zelarayan to drift free toward the middle of the goal box.

Valenzuela spots Zelarayan and hits a quick pass to the No. 10.

Zelarayan reaches out for the ball and uses his first touch to set off a move between Meza and George Bello toward the Atlanta goal.

Zelarayan’s touch slips him between the two defenders setting him loose on Brad Guzan.

With only Guzan left to beat, Zelarayan only has to decide where to place his shot.

Guzan goes to ground and Zelarayan chips the ball over the Five Stripes’ keeper . . .

. . . and into the back of the net!

Findings:

  1. This is the Crew team we saw at the MLS is Back Tournament. Simple passing, effective movement, dominant possession.
  2. Artur plays an instrumental role in this goal. He’s all over the field, providing safe passing options and linking the defense to the attack. That link has been missing over these past few weeks and plays like this are certainly a welcome sight.
  3. Zardes does very well to redirect a difficult pass to Valenzuela, who makes the perfect run.
  4. Zelarayan takes one touch to beat both defenders, one touch to set up his shot, and one touch to chip the ball over Guzan. Great work by Columbus’ No. 10.