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Porter calls Zelarayan ‘the best attacking player’ in MLS following FC Cincinnati performance

The Argentine carried the Black & Gold in a difficult game.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at FC Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday the Columbus Crew did something only five teams in Major League Soccer had done before. On the road, down two goals and down a man in the first half, the Black & Gold came from behind to tie their in-state rivals, FC Cincinnati, 2-2. In addition to the difficulties, the Crew entered the match without 11 players, including a number of starters.

Head coach Caleb Porter learned a lot about his team in such a dramatic match, but there were some parts of the comeback he already. For one, how good Columbus has it with playmaker Lucas Zelarayan.

“Lucas Zelarayan, a lot of people won’t agree with me on this, is the best attacking player in the league,” Porter said following the match.

The Argentine, who played out of position as a “False 9” in the game due to a lack of true forward options, contributed to both goals that the Crew pulled back into the match. The first came in the first minute of first half extra time when Darlington Nagbe lost the ball while driving forward. The loose ball fell to Zelarayan and, likely out of pure frustration of being in a 2- for the second straight week, rocketed it into the back of the net, a shot Porter called “world class.”

“I saw that Darlington was controlling the ball, but a defender came at him and the ball went my way,” Zelarayan recalled after the game. “I decided to hit it on my first touch and aimed for the lower corner, as close as possible to the post. I was fortunate that it was a good shot and I could score.”

It all happened so fast that no one could even believe their eyes.

“He has class. He hit it and it went in the back of the net and everyone was just like, ‘Did that just happen?’” said new Crew striker Erik Hurtado. “He showed why he’s one of the top players in the league. He’s not the biggest guy but he was fighting and doing whatever he could to help us get a result.”

The second goal came in the 77th minute when Zelarayan sent second-year forward Miguel Berry a perfectly weighted through ball which he was able to slot right past Cincinnati keeper Kenneth Vermeer. It was the type of pass that few in MLS can make and put the ball on a platter for Berry to score his first MLS goal in his Black & Gold debut.

When Harrison Afful got sent off in the 42nd minute with his second yellow card, Porter shifted to formations to a 4-4-1 with Zelarayan playing up top. The hope was that, despite playing down a man, the Argentine would pull out some magic.

He delivered.

“He was absolutely incredible,” said Porter. “Anybody that watched that game watched his performance, watched how he dribbles out of things, how he held the ball, how hard he worked, how much he cares. For me, if you factor all those things in, I don’t think there’s a better attacking Designated Player in the league.”

Zelarayan earned MLS Team of the Week honors for his performance on Friday night, helping Columbus earn a valuable road point against Cincinnati. It is the seventh time in his short MLS career Zelarayan has made the list.

Neither Zelarayan nor Porter can remember a time when they’ve seen a team overcome so many obstacles in one game to come back and tie.

“That says a lot about how well we worked as a team,” said Zelarayan.

The Black & Gold will continue to look to Zelarayan for offensive production as the Gold Cup and injuries keep players like Gyasi Zardes, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Derrick Ettiene Jr. and Luis Diaz away for the foreseeable future. The Crew is back in action on Saturday when the team takes on New York City FC back at Field at 7:30 p.m. ET.