Columbus Crew SC returned to Central Ohio on Saturday with fewer points than expected as the Black & Gold had to settle for a scoreless draw with in-state rivals FC Cincinnati. But, if Columbus didn’t get the result it wanted in the latest edition of the Hell is Real Derby, it certainly rejoiced in that fact that star midfielder Lucas Zelarayan returned to the team at Nippert Stadium after missing the previous two matches due to ankle soreness.
Signed by the Crew in December for a reported record transfer fee of around $7 million, the Argentinean started the season on fire, notching three goals and two assists in his first four matches with the team. In his absence, the Black & Gold had to tweak its offensive system, moving winger Pedro Santos to play the No. 10 spot as he did last year, when Crew legend Federico Higuain was injured.
The results, however, were nowhere near the ones obtained in 2019, a season in which the Portuguese midfielder had a career-high 11 goals to go along with six assists.
“We did well in some games when he wasn’t in, but in our system, he’s a key player,” head coach Caleb Porter said about Zelarayan’s return. “The way we play, the No. 10 is a really key player in the attack for us, which is why we went out and spent so much money on him. If you look at it in Portland as well, that’s why Diego Valeri was such a key focal point. We managed his absence okay, but it’s always better to have him in and I honestly think that if we had him for the full 90 minutes we’d have found a goal.”
Zelarayan’s absence was difficult for the team, but also for the Argentinean, who had to sit out of two matches right when his chemistry with his teammates was starting to pick up. The 28-year-old midfielder played through pain during last month’s MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, but after the Crew was eliminated, it was agreed that it was best for him to take full care of the soreness so he could be back at his best sooner.
“It was really painful, but I took the treatment as best as I could with the team’s doctors so I could play in Orlando,” Zelarayan explained this week. “Sitting out of a couple of weeks wasn’t good, but it was what I needed to get my ankle recovered and I didn’t feel any pain in the last match. I felt a little tired in the second half, which is normal considering I hadn’t played in a few weeks. I’m in good shape, but I’ve obviously lost some match rhythm and I will only get that back playing.”
It was easy to see that inactivity took a toll on the Argentinean’s production last weekend in Cincinnati. Normally the centerpiece of Columbus’ offense, Zelarayan completed just 75 percent of the 24 passing attempts in the match, both the lowest numbers since he debuted with the team.
His performance can be partially explained also due to the fact that the entire Crew team struggled with Cincinnati’s defensive game. For only the second time this season, the Black & Gold left the field without scoring a goal and possibly for the first the team did so without creating a real goal-scoring opportunity.
“I don’t think I played a great match,” Zelarayan reflected. “I couldn’t connect many passes and Cincinnati’s defensive system didn’t allow a lot of space and it was difficult to break them down. Maybe I should have moved to the sides a little more or just remained patient that I’d get the ball in a good spot at some point. These are the most difficult matches for me, but all we can do is keep working so we improve as a team and get in a position in which we’re able to break these defensive systems down.”
Porter, however, is not concerned. Even with Zelarayan having a performance below his typical standards, the head coach still managed to see some bright spots in his play, which make him confident that it’s just a matter of time until his star midfielder returns to the level that enchanted Crew fans at the start of the season.
“The little connections, the chemistry, that just takes time once we put the group back together to get that continuity back, but it will come,” the coach remarked. “He had some nice little moments, I thought he’d score one when he got at it at the top of the box. You could see the quick release, the technique and the power that he got on that shot. That’s what he can do in a half-moment and as we plug him in more and more, we’re going to see it more and more.”
Zelarayan getting back to his best level would be of great help over the next few days as the Crew has important back-to-back home matches on Wednesday and Sunday against the Philadelphia Union and FC Cincinnati to try to get back to winning ways.
The Argentinean can also play a pivotal role in helping the team to get back on the scoring sheet after being shut down in consecutive matches for the first time since July of 2019.
“We need to take advantage of the fact that we’ll be at home for the next two matches,” Zelarayan said. “These will be two difficult matches and we’ll need to play really well to get the results. We’ve been strong in our stadium and hopefully we can use the home field to our advantage and take all six points at home, which would be very important.”