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Crew’s Lucas Zelarayán returns to MLS Most Valuable Player race

Looking at what the Black & Gold’s No. 10 has done since he got healthy and there’s an argument over the league’s best player this year.

Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

Think back all the way to March. It wasn’t nearly 100 degrees outside and there weren’t storm delays every match. On the field, the Columbus Crew owned the month, scoring 10 goals in four games led offensively by midfielder Lucas Zelarayán. There were of course cracks in the armor, like set piece defending and lackluster scoring by Black & Gold forwards, but Zelarayán’s four goals and an assist put the Argentinian, and Columbus, near the top of the league.

Then a flurry of injuries and team changes took the spotlight away from the Crew’s offensive facilitator. But in early August, Zelarayán’s name is back in the conversation for Major League Soccer’s MVP.

That beginning of Zelarayán’s season was impressive as he kicked the door in. In four matches, Zelarayán had four goals and two assists, creating more goals than 16 teams. Entire teams. He created goals from the run of play and on set pieces, both scoring and providing.

On March 20, as the Black & Gold and Zelarayán were flying high, they crashed down to Earth. In the closing moments of a 1-1 draw against New York Red Bulls, Zelarayán suffered a knee injury that bothered Columbus’ No. 10 for months.

Initially slated to miss 3-5 weeks, Zelarayán returned after the international break, but Columbus couldn’t refind the form from prior to the injury. Even with a shiny new MLS Player of the Month Award for Zelarayán, the first for the 2020 MLS Cup MVP, it was clear that something was amiss.

Columbus faced three 2021 MLS Cup playoff teams, losing all three matches without scoring a goal. A run of poor form that featured mistakes, set piece goals and ineffective offense, dropped Columbus from near the top of the Eastern Conference standings to a team struggling to stay in the playoff race.

Zelarayán returned to the injury list following those three matches, and to his teammates and head coach Caleb Porter’s credit, a change in tactics started earning points. The Crew hasn’t lose a single match in 2022 played without Zelarayán, but have only won one of the four games. The team also brought in more firepower in forward Cucho Hernández.

So, what about this MVP talk? With Zelarayán’s injury and subsequent dip in form, other names have emerged in the discussion for the league’s best player this year.

Leading the pack is Austin FC forward Sebastián Driussi. The two-time MLS Player of the Month (April and July) has 23 goals created this season. Former league MVP Hany Mukhtar, from Nashville SC, is up there, alongside an unlikely name in FC Cincinnati forward Brandon Vazquez.

MLS’s own writers have Driussi as the unanimous MVP in their regular MVP Power Rankings, with Zelarayán not in the top-five discussion as of July 28. But Zelarayán’s return to 90-minute health has brought on form that’s better than the competition, Driussi included.

Looking simply at the stat sheet, Driussi has the advantage, creating 23 goals on 16 finishes and seven assists. Zelarayán doesn’t compare with eight goals, although a better assist number with 10. When it’s broken down to goals and assists per 90 minutes, however it’s a lot closer, with Driussi at 1.00 goals/assists per 90 and Zelarayán with 1.07 goals/assists per 90

Zelarayán’s reached that level even with a run of form that included eight matches with only two assists and three shots on goal. This was a time when the midfielder was back on the field, but the sharpness lacked as he dipped in and out of the injury report with the knee problem lingering.

Since July, Zelarayán has only improved his performances. An argument can be made that Hernández is the reason that Zelarayán returned to form, but there’s a problem with that point. Since the start of 2020, when Zelarayán joined the Crew, he’s shown that he can create big moments without a former English Premier League striker. Hernández has let the league see what Zelarayán’s had the entire time. When healthy, he’s one of the best.

Since the beginning of July, including a 0-0 draw against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Union, Zelarayán has scored four goals and assisted six in seven matches. On Saturday, Zelarayán scored twice, his fifth multi-goal match wearing black and gold, in Columbus’ 3-2 victory against New York City FC. His four goals are just one less than Hernández, who was brought in for that sole purpose, during that stretch.

Let’s compare Zelarayán recent form to the alleged runaway MVP power rankings leader:

Driussi – 7 goals, 3 assists – 1.58 goals/assists per 90

Zelarayán – 6 assists, 4 goals – 1.61 goals/assists per 90

Zelarayán has been part of 10 of the Crew’s 11 goals since the beginning of July. Also, when looking at how each player’s goal scoring impacts their own teams, one edges out the other in their value.

Driussi – 23 total goals contributed out of 50 team goals – 46%

Zelarayán – 18 total goals contributed out of 31 team goals – 58%

It’s naïve to think that stats are the only reason someone wins the most sought-after individual award in MLS. After all, Cincinnati’s Luciano Acosta is right up there in production with both Driussi and Zelarayán. Team success plays a big part and Austin FC is having a shocking year, earning 45 points in 24 matches after a tough expansion season where the Texas side earned 31 points in 34 games.

Saturday showed the Black & Gold still have the talent that led to the 2020 MLS Cup title, and then some. If a single win turns into a trend of beating playoff-caliber teams, and Zelarayán sustains his impressive current form, the MVP race might not be as clear-cut as some think.