Lucas Zelarayan certainly didn’t think he would have to deal with a lot of the stuff he did in his first season with the Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer. A global pandemic and repeated injuries were part of the adversities the 28-year-old Argentinean had to face in his initial year in Central Ohio.
While the interrupted season denied the team’s new playmaker the much-needed continuity he was looking for after leaving a strong impression in the first two matches of the year back in March, the compressed schedule and a handful of injuries limited the time the Argentinean was on the field.
His choice as MLS’s 2020 Newcomer of the Year ahead of the Chicago Fire’s Robert Beric and Sporting Kansas City’s Alan Pulido, however, showed that when he remained healthy, Zelarayan made a huge impact in games.
“I’m happy because it’s a very important award,” the Argentinean said in a media conference call following the announcement on Friday. “It’s my first year in a new country and a new league and the pandemic made it difficult, stopping the season and making us play in different tournaments. I had to overcome some difficult moments and to end the season with this award is fantastic, I hope it’s the first of many. One of the reasons why I decided to come to MLS was I thought it would help me grow as a player and I’m glad it’s happening that way.”
Zelarayan’s selection as the league’s Newcomer of the Year also brought reassurance to the team’s coaching staff and front office. With his price tag, reported at $8 million, the Argentinean is the Crew’s most expensive signing ever, and to see him perform accordingly gave the club the sense that they nailed his signing.
For head coach Caleb Porter, to have the midfielder rewarded resonated like validation for the club’s efforts on identifying him as a piece to build around and bringing him over from Mexican giants Tigres at the end of 2019.
“It’s a massive award for him, as it shows his quality and the impact he’s had in a short amount of time,” the head coach said. “It’s also a massive award for the club because it shows that in our recruitment, our scouting and our decisions while selecting Designated Players and key players for the roster, we got it right. It’s something he’s proud of and we’re proud of.”
Zelarayan’s production, even if in limited time, indeed made his case hard to argue against. While Columbus’ No. 10 played in only 16 regular season matches, with 12 starts, he was the offensive lynchpin the Black & Gold expected him to be, scoring six goals (some of them absolutely beautiful) and registering four assists.
He also excelled in other metrics, leading the team in goal-scoring chances created per 90 minutes (2.7), completed dribbles (40) and was also named to the MLS Team of the Week five times, more than another Black & Gold player.
With the Crew one week away from starting its postseason campaign on Nov. 21 at MAPFRE Stadium against the New York Red Bulls, the award also provides another boost of confidence for the entire team.
“The team is motivated for the playoffs,” Zelarayan, who had one of MLS’s top 25 highest-selling jerseys in the league this season, added. “When we look back and see everything we’ve had to deal with, it’s been a difficult year and if we can end it with the title, that would be great. This season we had one of the best campaigns the club has ever had and we know how much we deserve it because we worked hard, played well and showed we’re one of the best teams in the league. We want to keep it going and are motivated to try and end the season with a title, which would be a great coronation for our season.”
The season is hopefully still far from over for the Crew, but it’s impossible not to think about the impact a player like Zelarayan could have for the club for years to come. Although comparisons with club legend Federico Higuain were dismissed by both him and the coaching staff at the time of his signing, it’s not difficult to see the midfielder having the same long-term impact that his fellow Argentinean had in Columbus in the future.
The potential to do so is certainly out there and the 2020 sample size might be limited, but it was certainly exciting.
“If you look at the games he started, he produced what we thought he would,” Porter remarked. “He’s a game-changer, a guy who’s going to score goals and set up goals and he helps us execute the style of play we want to play. The No. 10 is very important in our system and he delivered. The injury is not his fault, it happens, and next year, if he’s in every game, it will be great.”