Lucas Zelarayán has big shoes to fill in his first Major League Soccer season with Columbus Crew SC and he knows it.
Brought to Central Ohio as the most expensive signing in club history, the 27-year-old attacking midfielder will wear the symbolic No. 10 and is expected to lead the team to a successful campaign as the Black & Gold approach what will be a historic season in 2021 with the club moving to its new stadium in downtown Columbus.
But that’s not all.
Zelarayán is walking into a club that boasts two Argentineans as its best-ever players. Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Federico Higuain both made history in Columbus and, whether they are fair or not, expectations will be that Zelarayán replicates the success of his compatriots in a black and gold uniform and becomes the face of the team as they did in the past.
Schelotto was the leader and best player of the Crew’s most successful squad yet, the one that lifted both the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup trophies in 2008, when the Argentinean was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. During his four seasons in Columbus, Schelotto scored 35 goals and registered 48 assists in 109 Major League Soccer matches.
Higuain had an even longer tenure with the Crew, as the catalyst of the team’s offense between 2012 and 2019, a period in which he scored 55 goals and notched 63 assists – the only Crew player to ever have 50 goals and 50 assists. He led the team to four postseason appearances, including the 2015 MLS Cup Final.
Zelarayán, who grew up watching both Crew legends in Argentina, is excited about the possibility of joining them in club history, but he wants to do it in his own way.
“I know that this club has a tradition of Argentinean players succeeding and these two did a lot for the Crew,” he told Massive Report this week. “That excites me, but I’m here to write my own history. All I want is to meet the expectations everyone here has about me.”
If the preseason is any measuring stick, he already is. Zelarayán showed promising skills during the matches the Crew played in preparation for the 2020 MLS season and he even scored a goal in the 4-1 victory againist the Houston Dynamo last Saturday in a play that showed two of the strongest elements of his game – his ability to dribble the ball and to finish.
Head coach Caleb Porter, for one, is excited with what the Argentinean has presented so far.
“For me, he’s one of the best No. 10s in the league and one of the best 10s I’ve coached,” he analyzed. “He’s a special player. Individually, he can pull a rabbit out of the hat and collectively he sees the game at a high level. Will he bag a hattrick every game? No, so let’s get our expectations a little realistic here. Will he score goals and get assists over the season? Yes, he’ll score and will create a lot of goals and the bottom line is our team will play better with him in the lineup because he’s a top player.”
Much of Zelarayán’s success will depend on how well he engages with Crew’s offensive pieces, especially striker Gyasi Zardes and wingers Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Youness Mokhtar. During preseason, the Argentine connected well with his teammates and seemed to be already starting to pick up their tendencies and movements.
“I feel we’ve been connecting really well already,” Zelarayán said. “They’re all great players and I think that we understood each other very well during preseason. Hopefully we can get even better as the season starts.”
This Sunday, Crew fans will be able to see the club’s newest Designated Player perform in-person for the first time and there’s a lot of excitement about it around the city. According to the player, this feeling is mutual.
“I’m very excited and even a little anxious for the first match, I can’t wait for it,” the Argentinean admitted. “Preseason went great and I hope we can start the season strong. I feel that we have a group of players that’s capable of achieving our goals this season.”