Sunday night was a storybook script when the Columbus Crew faced off against FC Cincinnati. Heated rivals took the field with both Columbus and Cincinnati entering the match on a strong run of form. Also, the Black & Gold were set to unveil their new striker, who already scored three goals in two substitute appearances outside of Columbus, in front of a sellout crowd at Lower.com Field. An underappreciated part of the story arc is the comeback of the tale’s hero, midfielder Lucas Zelarayán, who is coming back stronger than before.
Seeing the word underappreciated in the same sentence as Zelarayán feels weird. After all, the Argentinian midfielder joined the Crew prior to the 2020 season, scored in his first match and went on to win the 2020 MLS Cup Most Valuable Player award. Combining the end of 2021 and into the beginning of this year, Zelarayán had nine goals and five assists in eight matches.
On March 30, Zelarayán won the first MLS Player of the Month award of the young season. At the time, his six goals created in four matches were more than 16 other MLS teams. Zelarayán was in the way-too-early MVP discussion, but it was warranted. It appeared that Zelarayán has reached a new level.
The comeback story began on March 20, 2022. In Harrison, New Jersey, the Crew faced the New York Red Bulls. Late in the match, Zelarayán went to the ground in pain after colliding with Red Bulls defender Aaron Long. After a short attempt to continue on, the Armenian National Team midfielder required help to get off the field.
At first, it looked worse than expected. Crew supporters saw midfielders Aidan Morris and Kevin Molino both leave the team for close to a year each with ACL tears. Fortunately for Zelarayán, he was given a one- to two-week recovery time that aligned with an international break and he didn’t miss a match. Once Zelarayán returned though, he wasn’t the same.
The playmaker’s first match against Nashville SC was his worst passing match of the season and he ended the game with just one shot on target. On set pieces, Zelarayán’s specialty, the same high-level delivery supporters were used to wasn’t there. The Crew followed that 1-0 defeat to Nashville facing two more playoff teams in Philadelphia Union and Orlando City SC.
Columbus didn’t score a single goal in the three-match stretch, after putting 10 past goalkeepers in the first four games of 2022. Zelarayán returned to the injury report, came back momentarily and then missed three more matches while recovering. In the nine games surrounding his up-and-down injury concerns, Zelarayán had just two assists, far away from the form that put him on the MLS Team of the Week in the first three weeks of 2022.
During his time away, the Black & Gold found ways to win through different formations and taking more drastic strategic adjustments, as opposed to making opponents adjust for them. In four matches without the midfielder, Columbus earned six points and didn’t lose, but three of those matches were draws.
Then the Crew brought in forward Cucho Hernández.
Hernández’s addition to the club made some wonder how Zelarayán would react. After all, the Black & Gold’s No. 10 was a fan favorite since joining the team from Tigres in Mexico’s Liga MX. Although they played different positions, would Columbus’ hero be ok with sharing the spotlight?
Entering Sunday, there were already glimpses of that answer. Hernández made his debut on July 9, against the Chicago Fire. At Soldier Field, the Crew played a woeful first half, going down 2-0 with Zelarayán playing a forward role. When head coach Caleb Porter switched formations and put a now healthy Zelarayán in his natural facilitator role, Columbus shined.
Zelarayán had two assists to bring the Crew level with Chicago before Hernández scored the match-winner in a 3-2 victory. After only four days, Zelarayán earned two more assists, both to Hernández, in the Black & Gold’s 2-2 draw at D.C. United.
For the first time in front of home fans, Hernández made his debut against Cincinnati and Zelarayán controlled the show. In the 16th minute, Zelarayán sent a cross into the penalty box from a free kick and Hernández headed it inside the post for a 1-0 lead. Hernández ran towards the corner, slid on his knees and it was Zelarayán celebrating with Columbus’ record signing first.
The whole “can he share the spotlight” question was a scraped storyline. It isn’t just celebrations on the field dispelling that, but on the training field and in the locker room. When Zelarayán walks onto the field at the OhioHealth Performance Center, it’s Hernández next to him. After the 2-0 home victory in the Hell is Real Derby, it’s Zelarayán and Hernández next to each other in the locker room talking after the match.
Zelarayàn created four chances, was fouled five times by the Cincinnati defense and scored his first goal since March 12. It came from the penalty spot, but he was also the one who took the initial shot to earn it. There was no doubt in his penalty attempt, forcing the goalkeeper to dive in the wrong direction for a clear opening and a fitting ending to another chapter of the 2022 season.
“The derby was special for me,” said Zelarayán following his one-goal, one-assist performance. “It was a long time with no goal from myself, so I needed it and I’m really happy for that.”
Someone that isn’t happy about this return to form are the Crew’s foes. In three games alongside his South American scoring partner Hernández, Zelarayán has five assists and a goal, the same number of goals created at the beginning of 2022 that earned him that first MLS Player of the Month award.
Zelarayán of course didn’t do all of that alone. There are 10 other players on the field and Sunday everyone played a part.
An early save from goalkeeper Eloy Room allowed the match to stay level and for the Black & Gold to find their footing. Central midfielder Aidan Morris played a career match, marauding the midfield and winning the ball away from the Orange and Blue offense. Center backs Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams each stopped momentum on many occasions, leading to a Cincinnati team that had few real chances on goal.
With everyone playing their part, and Zelarayán getting back to the storybook hero he’s been since 2020, it’s a new chapter on the 2022 season.
“Lucas you see him, he’s coming to life,” said head coach Caleb Porter. “We have a lot of confidence right now and a lot of home games. These guys are hungry.”