When the 2019 Major League Soccer season came to an end for the Columbus Crew, it also marked the final moments of a long era for the Black & Gold. When the club announced it wouldn’t bring the legendary Federico Higuain back for what would be his ninth year with the team in 2020, it was clear that things were about to change in Ohio.
The most important step of the process was finding the right player to take Higuain’s influential spot on the team and, after nearly 14 months since his departure from Columbus was announced, it’s fair to say the Crew’s front office and coaching staff got his decision absolutely right with Lucas Zelarayan. The new Argentinean playmaker guided the Black & Gold to its second MLS Cup trophy with two goals and an MVP-performance against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday night.
The first step when scouting and considering a player of such magnitude is to have a clear idea of what the team is looking to get from its new signing. The Crew, it seems, knew exactly what it wanted way before even signing Zelarayan. Actually, the decision of moving on from Higuain was made based on the change the coaching staff was willing to make in the team’s playing style, which was the starting point of their search for a replacement.
“Primarily it was due to the change that we see in this club and the style of play,” team president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said when the decision of not keeping Higuain was announced. “After his (Higuain’s) injury, we had to move away from a certain style of play that was more possession-based and we had more success by being more transition-oriented and counter-pressing and what we’ve been calling being decisive and relentless on both sides of the ball.”
That, for sure, Zelarayan delivered to Columbus. Aside from his great work on the ball, the Argentinean brought a new level of intensity for the Crew’ No. 10 position, playing an important role in pressing opponents up top with striker Gyasi Zardes. He also won balls back frequently, as the four tackles he registered in the MLS Cup Final indicate.
But a player with what seems to be the perfect skillset is not necessarily a good fit for sports teams. If a club is looking for a player who will lead its roster on the field, that player needs to have a certain mindset, which is not easy to find.
From start to finish— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) December 13, 2020
This play: The Crew Way pic.twitter.com/NKwMJSoGuT
In Zelarayan, the Crew identified an opportunity. His talent level stood out right from the beginning, it was “f**king unbelievable,” as head coach Caleb Porter quickly noticed. He was part of a powerhouse in Liga MX’s Tigres team where he won seven titles in four years, but there was something he dearly missed and, luckily, that was exactly what the Crew was willing to give him.
“When I look back at the titles I won with Tigres, I was never on the field in finals,” Zelarayan reflected a few minutes after MLS Cup Final. “I was on the bench or even in the stands and it’s not the same, it’s not as much fun for a player. I was obviously happy for my teammates, but it was a little frustrating on the individual level. When the Crew approached me, they said they wanted me to be their No. 10 and that they would build the team around me. And after a final like this, the way it played out, with me getting MVP in my first year here, I couldn’t be any happier.”
That sort of chip-on-his-shoulder mentality was exactly what the Crew needed for the team’s new No. 10 and technical leader on the field. In Zelarayan, the club’s most expensive signing ever at a reported fee of $7 million, the Black & Gold knew they were getting a player who felt he had something to prove after four years in a secondary role in Mexico.
“He seemed to be looking for something new to stimulate him, reinvigorate him,” Porter said. “These guys are people. Yeah, they make money. Yeah, they have to perform. They are people. A lot of time I’ve seen this with guys, they are cutthroat, they sell their souls a little bit and they lose their way. You know, he came here and I think he looks like a new man.”
we see a pair of goats in this photo pic.twitter.com/MgfNjSyk6d— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) December 13, 2020
According to Zelarayan, though, he looks exactly the same as he did five years ago when he used to play for his hometown club Belgrano in Argentina. In addition to the MLS Cup MVP trophy, the 28-year-old Zelarayan also took home the 2020 MLS Newcomer of the Year award and capped off a prolific first season in MLS with eight goals and nine assists in 20 matches.
However, more than the stats, the awards or even the MLS title, the most important thing Columbus gave Zelarayan was his confidence back.
“Looking back, with all that happened, it makes me confident I made the right decision coming here this year,” the Argentinean remarked a few minutes after the final whistle. “I knew that it would be a new challenge and it helped me recover the confidence I had lost. They made me feel like an important player and I got back to being the player I was at the beginning of my career. I had always been very self-confident and always felt I was the best player on the field and I got that back here. I’m very grateful to the front office, the coaching staff and my teammates who restored my confidence.”
Zelarayan’s journey in Columbus is just in the beginning, but what a start it had. Only time will tell how long and prolific it will be, but one thing is for sure, it’s already a memorable one, for the club and the player.
“We shared a great moment after the game. He said something that I’ll never forget,” Porter revealed. “He told me I changed his life and I told him he changed my life.”
And, after Saturday’s champinoship, probably the lives of quite a few people in Central Ohio too.