The memories were still running fresh in Lucas Zelarayán’s mind when he addressed the media after he scored the game-winning goal in Columbus Crew’s 1-0 victory against New York City FC in the team’s 2020 Major League Soccer’s season opener at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday.
“It was a very quick play and a great pass from Harry (Afful),” he reflected. “I managed to turn inside the box, the ball fell right on my left foot and was fortunate to strike it in the right spot.”
That was Zelarayán’s description of not only his first goal as a Crew player, but also his first step in the massive challenge he embraced when he decided to move to Columbus after four successful years with Mexican powerhouse Tigres. The most expensive signing in Crew’s history, the Argentinean came in with the huge responsibility of taking over the No. 10 jersey that was worn by his compatriot and club legend Federico Higuain for the last eight years.
With the new club came the need to fulfill sky-high expectations, but also a lot of support and love from the fans as Zelarayán noticed when he has welcomed in Columbus by more than 100 people in January, and that’s one thing the playmaker, nicknamed ‘El Chino’ (The Chinese), doesn’t take for granted.
“I’m very grateful to the fans and the city as they welcomed me in a great way when I first stepped here,” he added. “I’m feeling very comfortable and it felt great to gift them a goal and give at least a little bit back for the love I’ve been getting here.”
Zelarayán’s debut in a Crew uniform gave the fans a better understanding of why the club’s coaching staff and front office were so confident that he was the No. 10 they wanted to replace the legendary Higuaín. Aside from the game-winning goal, Zelarayán also drew the early foul that had NYCFC’s center back Maxime Chanot sent off just three minutes into the game and played a central role in the team’s offense by connecting nearly 84 percent of his passes and registering a match-high five dribbles.
“He’s a difference-maker, and that’s why we brought him,” head coach Caleb Porter reacted to the new signing’s performance. “You need difference-makers on your team. Of course, we need to be good as a group, but there’s not a good team in the world that doesn’t have difference makers individually that can pull off plays. That’s what he brings.”
Sunday’s match was a good example of how a player of Zelarayán’s caliber can indeed make a difference. The Crew had a one-man advantage for basically the entire match, but NYCFC remained very well-organized and didn’t allow the Black & Gold a whole lot of opportunities to score for most of the game.
It took Zelarayán’s ability to operate in tight spaces and his accurate finish to unlock New York City’s system and change the rhythm of the game for the Crew.
“After they were down a man they stayed compact and didn’t allow us a lot of space,” the Argentinean analyzed. “We knew it would to be difficult to break them down and that we had to be patient. Luckily we scored early in the second half and from there we could control the game with a little more freedom.”
The debut was a dream first step and earned Zelarayán a spot in the league’s Team of the Week, but the bar was set high and it’s almost like the Argentinean will have to get better and better every week. And that’s exactly his plan.
“I think we have a great team,” the midfielder commented. “Obviously there’s always areas where we can improve, but we played a very good team and managed to win a very difficult match. We hope we can fix any mistakes we made so we can keep improving.”