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Zelarayan looking for the final piece of a fantastic first season with the Crew

The Argentinean Designated Player delivered everything he was expected so far – but the big prize is still ahead.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Not many players have joined the Columbus Crew with more pressure on their shoulders than Lucas Zelarayan. Brought as the most expensive signing in club history for a reported fee of $7-plus million from Liga MX side Tigres, the Argentinean also had the daunting task of replacing club legend and fellow countryman Federico Higuain, from whom he inherited the No. 10 jersey.

With the 2020 Major League Soccer season just one match away from its conclusion and the Crew hosting the MLS Cup Final against defending champions Seattle Sounders at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, it’s hard to believe either the club or the player could have envisioned how things would play out the day Zelarayan first set foot in Columbus, January 12, exactly 11 months before MLS Cup.

The season was, by no means, perfect, as it obviously couldn’t be with a global pandemic interrupting play for four months. The break took its toll on Zelarayan, who missed seven matches due to injury, but he still managed to get to the final game of the season with the impressive production of six goals and 10 assists, four of which he registered during the MLS Cup playoffs.

His strong performance in the league earned him the MLS Newcomer of the Year award, but, most importantly led the Crew to the MLS Cup Final after a five-year wait.

“I’m very happy with the year I’ve had on a personal level,” he said on a conference call ahead of MLS Cup on Wednesday. “It’s been a difficult year for everyone, both in terms of soccer and in terms of health. Being named Newcomer of the Year, being conference champions, making MLS Cup means it’s been a very positive year overall. And the club has also shown that they are very happy with me, which is very important.”

One of the keys for Zelarayan’s successful first season and his apparently seamless adjustment to a new league, a new club, a new city, a new language, and new teammates in the midst of a pandemic was probably his laid-back personality.

The Argentinean obviously knew how much his signing meant to the Crew and its fans, as he repeated a handful of times earlier in the season, but he never really let that put pressure on him to perform.

“He always has a smile on his face, which is amazing,” striker Gyasi Zardes said about the Argentinean. “I try to speak Spanish to him every now and then and he speaks English. He’s a great locker room guy and a lot of the guys connect with him. I love just cracking jokes with him and with the guys and I love him as a teammate because that chemistry off the field helps us on the field when we are going through tough times.”

Zelarayan also credits the club and the fans for his easy adjustment to life and soccer in Columbus. The Argentinean says he felt welcomed in the city and in the locker room since his first day in town and that it has helped him and his family settle in Ohio after spending the last four years in Mexico.

“Since the first moment I arrived here, I felt comfortable and the club gave me a great welcome,” he remarked. “There’s a great team here, a great coaching staff, great people overall, and I really like the city. My family and I are extremely happy in Columbus. Looking back on the year that I’ve had, I think I made a great decision to come here, and I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as possible and hopefully win MLS Cup in my first year.”

The Sounders are the last barrier standing in Zelarayan’s way as he tries to cap off what has been a remarkable debut season in MLS with a title. The Argentinean is aware of the reigning champions’ strengths as a team but he’s confident in the Black & Gold chances in the match also.

“We know that they have great players and great attackers in midfield as well, but so do we,” Zelarayan reflected. “We’ve shown we can play against anyone. That’s what’s brought us up to this point to the final, being able to play our game independent of the opponent, and at the end of the day we are two teams that know how to play and we’re going to attack and we hope to offer everyone a great show and a great game.”

If the Crew can prevail against the Sounders on Saturday and lift the MLS Cup, the Black & Gold will do so in front of only a small fraction of the fans that have supported the team the entire season, as only 1,500 spectators, as well as close family and friends, will be allowed inside MAPFRE Stadium for the match.

For the Argentinean, winning a trophy for the people who found ways to show their support even if unable to be at the stadium for most of the season is another motivation to make his first year in Columbus one that was as close to perfect as possible.

“More than anything, I just want to thank the fans,” he added. “Thank them for supporting the team, even though they may not be able to be in the stadium in person. They always make themselves seen and felt via social media and when they are hanging flags at the training facility, things like that. The fans are always present and always supporting, so we hope we can return the favor and give these fans a title.”