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Babe Ruth? LeBron James? Lucas Zelarayan is doing it all for the Crew in 2021

The Black & Gold playmaker is carrying the load for his team to start the season, just like legends in other sports.

Columbus Crew SC v New York City FC Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

Lucas Zelarayan is special. How special is the Columbus Crew playmaker? So special that after last Saturday’s 2-1 win at New York City FC, head coach Caleb Porter compared Zelarayan to former New York Yankees legend, Babe Ruth.

Okay, to be fair, Porter compared Zelarayan’s game-winning free kick goal in stoppage time to Ruth appearing to call his shot by pointing into the stands before hitting a home run in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series.

“When you look at the second goal, you knew where he was shooting it. So that’s what I meant by it,” Porter explained this week.

However Porter meant it at the time, the comparison isn’t crazy, or at least it’s becoming less and less crazy with every moment of brilliance by Zelarayan.

Signed last year for a club-record fee, the Argentine attacking midfielder was expected to come in and be a difference-maker for the Crew. Like Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Federico Higuain before him, Zelarayan was set to be the catalyst for the Black & Gold’s attack.

He did that in his debut season, taking home MLS’s 2020 Newcome of the Year award as well as leading Columbus to the MLS Cup championship. He was named the MVP of the Final with two goals and one assist in a 3-0 rout of defending champions Seattle Sounders.

Zelarayan picked up where he left off to begin 2021. Through 10 games — six in MLS play and four in the CONCACAF Champions League — Zelarayan is the Crew’s offense, contributing a goal or an assist in every game in which the Black & Gold has scored. The two games in which Zelarayan did not feature were Columbus’ worst offensive performances of the year.

“Our playmaker, Lucas Zelarayan, is playing out of his mind right now,” Porter said this week.

What makes Zelarayan special is the different ways he can impact a game. In the Champions League Round of 16 second leg versus Real Esteli, Zelarayan came off the bench to spark a lifeless offense, providing the setup for Bradley Wright-Phillips’ winner. In the next round’s first leg against Monterrey, Zelarayan, knowing he would miss Leg 2 due to yellow card accumulation, played like a man possessed, fighting for a ball that seemed destined to go out of bounds to provide the assist to Milton Valenzuela on the first goal before scoring a splendid one-time finish for the go-ahead goal.

But the magic of Zelarayan in 2021 has been on dead ball situations. When the play is stopped and the No. 10 can stand over the ball and pick his spot to shoot, Zelarayan is proving to be as lethal as anyone in MLS history.

Already this year, Zelarayan has three direct free kick goals, sitting only behind David Beckham and Sebastian Giovinco for the most in a single MLS season. Beckham’s four free kick strikes in 2012 came in 24 games played. Giovinco managed five direct free kick goals in 2015 in 33 games and he scored six in 2017, the MLS record, in 25 contests. Zelarayan has taken the pitch just five times for the Crew this year.

What makes it even more impressive is the variety of ways in which Zelarayan scores his free kicks. The first against D.C. United in early May came from 30 yards out and curled into the back corner of the goal, a set piece that would make Beckham proud.

His first finish against NYCFC last week was more reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo; a powerful, knuckling blast that rooted goalkeeper Sean Johnson to his spot. Zelarayan followed that with the game-winner — the strike Porter mentioned — from just outside the penalty box. This shot had to be high enough to get over the well-position wall and then drop down enough to be on target. Zelarayan imitated his countryman Lionel Messi by taking a short run up and placing the ball exactly where it needed to be.

“You know when he steps up, something special is going to happen,” Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room, who has to face these free kicks often in training, said on Friday. “So when he stepped up in that game, I already knew something special was going to happen. He’s got a really good kick. He can kick different kinds of balls. He can kick hard balls, bended balls, so you have to be on your toes as a goalkeeper. I’ve known him now for a while so I know his shots a little bit, but still, you know he can shoot amazing balls.”

Zelarayan’s brilliance this season has seen him be responsible for all of the Black & Gold’s statistical offense. Similar to how LeBron James takes over a game in the NBA, Zelarayan has shouldered the offensive load for Columbus in 2021, with his three free kick goals being the only three finishes scored by a Crew player — the Black & Gold also benefited from two own goals against D.C.

“This season has been more difficult for us because we’re the defending champions and the other teams have obviously studied our playing style and are doing a good job in closing the space for us,” Zelarayan said. “They know how we can cause damage, so we need to keep working and find other ways to attack and to do better in the final third. I think this responsibility is shared by the entire team. I’ve been fortunate to score a few goals but the best scenario for us would be having all forwards scoring goals. We’re working on it and hopefully will get better.”

The comparisons for Zelarayan are aplenty depending on what part of his game you are talking about. The midfielder has been remarkable in just over a year with Columbus, already putting himself in the conversation as one of the club’s best signings despite his price tag. In 2021, he has kept the Crew afloat offensively while the other attackers find a way to get going.

And while Porter is willing to hand out high praise in his Zelarayan comparisons, the midfielder isn’t quite there yet.

“I know who Babe Ruth was,” Zelarayan said. “I’ve watched videos and even a movie about him and about kids who dreamed about being like him. I honestly don’t know what to think about this comparison because he’s been a legend in this country and I’ve just arrived and we play different sports. But I appreciate the comparison and take it as a compliment.”