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Anatomy of a Goal: Zelarayan dazzles in his debut

In our first Anatomy of a Goal of the 2020 season we look at Lucas Zelarayan’s game-winning goal.

Ralph Schudel-Massive Report

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

For match one of the 2020 MLS Season, we take a look at Lucas Zelarayan’s 56th-minute goal that gave the Crew a season-opening win against New York City FC on Sunday.

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

The Black & Gold started their 2020 season with high expectations and quickly saw expectations climb even higher when Maxime Chanot was sent off with a straight red in the third minute. The Crew applied heavy pressure to NYCFC during the long stretches of the first half but were ultimately unable to come away with a goal due to both bad luck and City’s compact defense featuring two banks of four.

The Black & Gold’s season-opening goal begins with a Ronald Matarrita throw-in right in the middle of the defensive half of the field. Matarrita makes a throw into the path of Alexandru Mitrita. New York City’s left winger is defended by Artur with newcomer Darlington Nagbe close to the ball’s trajectory.

Mitrita reaches the ball but is quickly closed out by both of Columbus’ defensive midfielders. Darlington Nagbe wins the ball as City quickly drops off into a defensive position.

Nagbe shifts the ball forward while NYCFC quickly get into their 10-man defensive posture. Milton Valenzuela cuts to the space to Nagbe’s left, opening himself up for an outlet pass up the sideline.

Nagbe slides a pass out to Valenzuela who is heading toward the left (attacking) sideline.

Valenzuela carries the ball until Maxi Moralez arrives to apply defensive pressure, and quickly drops the ball back to Nagbe.

Nagbe dribbles a few yards forward until Moralez faces up to him. The Black & Gold’s midfielder then slides a pass back up to Valenzuela on the sideline.

Valenzuela carries the ball a few yards forward as City shift their defensive positioning. When Moralez cuts off his path up the sideline Valenzuela drops the ball back to Nagbe.

Nagbe takes the passed ball forward and shifts his attention to the middle of the field. In the image above, you can see all nine of NYCFC’s outfield players. City has condensed their defensive line into a box about 24 yards long by a little less than 40 yards wide. The width of the pitch at MAPFRE Stadium is 75 yards, so nearly half the remaining field is available for the Crew to switch a pass into.

From a different angle you can see Nagbe’s two passing options to Youness Mokhtar or Harrison Afful. Columbus manager Caleb Porter mentioned at halftime that the team struggled to break down City’s tight defensive lines. However, when the defense congests itself and the attacking team into such a small space, wide passing angles appear.

Afful stands totally unmarked, more than 20 yards away from the nearest NYCFC defender. Nagbe pings a long, accurate pass to his right back.

Afful collects the ball with time and room to operate, and has multiple options. Mokhtar heads into the space behind City left-back Matarrita, opening up a potential passing lane or Afful can cut back toward the center of the field.

Afful’s excellent move to create more space needs to be seen in motion to be truly appreciated.

Matarrita knows that Mokhtar is running in behind him for a quick turnaround cross or shot on goal so he heads toward the space in which Mokhtar will be. Afful angles his hips as if he means to pass a ball into space for Mokhtar.

When Afful sees Matarrita moving into position to intercept or defend his pass, he cuts the ball back toward the goal, sending the NYCFC defender away from him and opening up space near the 18-yard box.

Afful cuts closer toward the penalty box as Matarrita attempts to recover.

As Afful nears the 18-yard line, Zelarayan calls for a pass into the space between Matarrita and Alexander Callens. Afful has three options: He can play a leading pass into that space for Zelarayan, continue to carry the ball toward the goal or cross into the penalty box toward Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos.

Afful heeds Zelarayan’s request and plays a leading pass to his No. 10.

Zelarayan has the best angle to receive the pass but will immediately be met by Alexander Ring.

Zelarayan beats Ring to the ball and uses his first touch, or maybe a fortunate Ring touch, to send the ball away from pressure.

Matarrita steps to Zelarayan. The Black & Gold’s Argentine attacker will now have to use a second touch to either beat Matarrita toward the goal or back toward the top of the penalty box away from the immediate pressure.

Zelarayan takes a touch directly toward the City goal.

This goal-ward touch frees Zelarayan from pressure, allowing him to take an uncontested shot.

Sean Johnson can only watch as the ball flies past him . . .

. . . and into the back of the net!


  1. Nagbe and Artur combined for 12 total tackles against NYCFC. This might not be a preview of Nagbe’s play for the rest of the season but it’s a great sign when both defensive midfielders are able to break up plays and start the attack.
  2. Valenzuela and Nagbe play simple passes to each other up the field and are very quickly into the City attacking half. These passes helped occupy NYCFC’s attention toward the attacking left and away from the attacking right where Afful was able to slip in unnoticed.
  3. During his halftime interview, Porter was visibly and audibly frustrated by his team’s inability to breakdown NYCFC’s rigid defensive blocks. Nagbe and the two outside backs link up to break through those lines by dragging the defense left before a big but simple switch of the field.
  4. Afful used his whole body to fake out Matarrita and slip a pass into Zelarayan. In year’s past, the attacking play would have been to play that pass to Mokhtar for a low-percentage cross but with Zelarayan on the field there is yet another attacking option inside the penalty box.
  5. What more can be said about Zelarayan’s goal that hasn’t already. The $7 million man is living up to the preseason hype.