Through the first three weeks of the 2022 Major League Soccer season, no player has been better than the Columbus Crew’s Lucas Zelarayan with three MLS Team of the Week honors. The Armenian international leads the league with four goals, six total goal contributions and 12 key passes. Zelarayan has four shots on goal out of nine shots and they’ve all gone in the net.
Those who gather weekly at Lower.com Field or watch the Crew on television when on the road have gotten used to Zelarayan’s brilliance the last two years. He was the MLS Newcomer of the Year in his first season and ended that year by not only lifting the MLS Cup, but also the championship game Most Valuable Player Award. He may not have had the silverware after a down season for Columbus last year, but he was still impressive.
To start this season, however, Zelarayan has been on another level with his performances and production. Crew fans will be wondering if he can keep up this incredible form. By looking at the underlying stats, it seems so and Zelarayan could put together another impressive season if he stays healthy.
A look at Lucas Zelarayan’s expected goals
With Zelarayan’s four goals this season, he has completely outpaced his 0.9 expected goals (xG), the likelihood a goal is scored from a position on the field. Four goals per one xG is an unsustainable ratio, and most players regress to the mean. Will there be a regression for Zelarayan? Probably, but not as much as one would expect.
In Zelarayan’s time in Columbus, he has scored a total of 24 goals in the regular season and postseason combined. In that time, he has had an xG of 11.1 over 55 games. This is enough of a sample size to suggest that an average of about two goals per his xG (g/xG). For perspective, Erling Haaland’s g/xG from his time at Borussia Dortmund is 1.28 and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandoski has a 1 g/xG (stats courtesy of understat.com), and those are two of the world’s best scorers. A player averaging over 1 xG is very good.
When Carlos Vela had his 2019 MLS MVP season for LAFC, he scored 34 goals on 27.4 xG. If Zelarayan can keep up his pace of 2 g/xG, the only two barriers to Zelarayan having an MVP season are getting the ball and keeping him healthy. There are good early signs that Columbus will have more production from the wingers this year, which will greatly help Zelarayan. Goal contributions from the wings and the forward will help alleviate pressure and marking on Zelarayan. If Columbus was to trade Gyasi Zardes, although that now seems unlikely, forward Miguel Berry will need more than the eight goals he scored last season to keep pressure off of Zelarayan.
The main reason Zelarayan outperforms his xG is that he makes more shots from outside the penalty box than nearly any other player. His goal against Toronto FC had an xG of 0.03. Free kick goals, something Zealrayan has made his specialty, are slightly less than 0.1 xG. In his 55 games, Zelarayan has scored 14 goals from outside the 18-yard box. Former TFC star Sebastian Giovinco, for comparison’s sake, scored 26 goals from outside the box in 114 appearances for Toronto.
As a note, Zelarayan also outperforms his expected assists (xA). He has 18 assists in 11.2 xA. Of those assists, five came in the postseason off 1 xA. Also, in the postseason Zelarayan has scored two goals in 1.1 xG. These numbers show that Zelarayan shows up in big ways in the big games.
The Crew simply win more when Zelarayan is on the field
Since Columbus acquired Zelarayan, the Crew has gone 31-19-14 (postseason included). With Zelarayan on the field, Columbus is 28-15-12. In 2020, Zelarayan played in 11 home games, including the postseason. The Black & Gold won each of those matches, including the MLS Cup Final. While playing in Columbus, the Crew is 24-4-3 when Zelarayan plays.
With Zelarayan on the field, the Black & Gold have won an MLS Cup, the Campeones Cup, and have a 77 percent win rate at home. He is massively important to Columbus. The 2021 season was disappointing for the Crew and based on early results, the Black & Gold have taken that as motivation and are in good form. Zelarayan is a major part of that success and, with a healthy season, should make a run at the MLS MVP award.