Lucas Zelarayan has only been a member of the Columbus Crew for just over a year, but in that time he has shown his quality and justified the club making him a record signing from Mexican side Tigres in December of 2019. Zelarayan debuted with a game-winning goal to start the 2020 season, he ripped apart FC Cincinnati to open the MLS is Back Tournament and he dazzled his way to the MLS Cup MVP with a two-goal, one-assist performance against the Seattle Sounders last December.
In a short time with the Black & Gold, the 2020 MLS Newcomer of the Year has many impressive performances to his name. Zelarayan’s best, however, may have come Wednesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Liga MX giants Monterrey.
Heading into the match, head coach Caleb Porter described Zelarayan as “flying” in training. His preparation for a game that was arguably as big as any in club history was off the charts. But Zelarayan also had extra motivation of a personal nature.
“It was a special match for me after playing for four years in Liga MX,” Zelarayan said. “And Tigres was Monterrey’s biggest rival. That made the match special.”
Even before the game, the importance of the match was evident. With captain Jonathan Mensah out with a tight hamstring, Porter gave Zelarayan the armband for the first time, allowing him to lead the Crew on to the field against the four-time Champions League winners.
As the game began, Zelarayan was a clear target defensively for Rayados. While he wasn’t the star for Tigres that he is for Columbus, Monterrey knew the danger Zelarayan posed and hoped to limit his opportunities.
While the approach worked in the first half, Zelarayan found his footing in the second. Down 1-0 after giving up an early goal, the Crew grew into the match before halftime. Coming out of the locker room, a determined Zelarayan took control of the game, sparking an impressive comeback for the home side.
“Early in the game, you could see they collapsed on him, got a lot of numbers around him, were looking to disrupt him,” Porter said of Rayados’ approach on Zelarayan. “He didn’t get a ton of touches. He didn’t maybe get into a rhythm in that first half as much as he would have liked but just kept focused and didn’t get rattled and took the game over in the second half completely.”
The tying goal came 20 minutes into the second half on a play created by Zelarayan. The ball appeared to be heading over the end line for a goal kick but the Argentine playmaker demonstrated his hustle and fought off a defender to not only keep the ball inbounds but win possession. After a series of feints, Zelarayan found space to fire a cross that was powered home by his countryman, Milton Valenzuela, at the back post.
It was again Zelarayan playing creator on what appeared to be the Crew’s go-ahead goal six minutes later. His well-placed free kick found the head of center back Josh Williams, who headed the ball back across goal for an easy finish by forward Bradley Wright-Phillips. While VAR deemed the goal offside, it was another warning sign for Monterrey.
Three minutes before the expected final whistle, Zelarayan played hero for the Black & Gold once more. This time, Columbus’ No. 10 redirected a Harrison Afful cross into the corner of the goal with a wicked one-time, right-footed strike while falling over to give the Crew a late 2-1 lead.
“Everybody knows his quality,” winger Pedro Santos said of Zelarayan after the match. “He’s a big player, he showed last year and everybody on the team believes in him and he shows his quality. We are happy with him and I’m happy because I like to see him play well, score goals and make assists. He’s helping the team and we as a team are helping him to be good.”
While Monterrey did grab a late equalizer, Zelarayan’s performance in this 2-2 draw will not soon be forgotten. The only stain on his display was a controversial yellow card picked up in the 12th minute when the midfielder inadvertently stepped on the foot of Rayados defender Sebastián Vegas. The card, his second in four Champions League matches, means Zelarayan will miss an important second leg next week in Mexico.
“I believe the yellow card was undeserved,” Zelarayan admitted following the game. “The match was right at the beginning and it was an isolated play. I had the ball and unintentionally stepped on my opponents’ foot. I don’t think it was worth a yellow card and I felt bad about it but focused on leaving it behind and helping the team... But I’m sad I won’t be able to help in the next match.”
Zelarayan certainly was able to put the early yellow card out of his mind and control what he could control. He once again made crucial plays at important moments to help the Crew, just as he did on MLS’s opening day a year ago or last December in the MLS Cup Final.
Whether this was his best performance in a black and gold uniform is up for debate, one that should likely wait until Zelarayan’s career in Columbus is over as this won’t be the last time he shines for the Crew.
“Top, top, top level. Special, special player,” Porter said of Zelarayan. “I mean, what do you say? His hunger, his quality, his creativity, his strength on the ball, even just his mentality… He’s, for me, one of the best players in MLS and when you look at CONCACAF, he’s got to be one of the best players in CONCACAF and I think he showed that last night and he’s shown that really in a lot of games.”