Lucas Zelarayan has never been to Armenia, but that'll change soon as he prepares to make his debut for Armenia's national team.
Zelarayan, who was born and raised in Argentina, has Armenian heritage through his father. He always knew about those roots and the Armenian federation was well aware, too, gauging his interest in a potential switch a few years ago when the attacker was playing for Liga MX's Tigres UANL. But he wasn't ready at the time.
Armenia called again and this time got a different answer from the Columbus Crew's star midfielder. They said they'd get him a passport and do the paperwork if he wanted. After talking it over with his family, Zelarayan made the decision to accept a call-up. They play two World Cup qualifiers this window, traveling to face Iceland (Oct. 8) and Romania (Oct. 11).
Zelarayan didn't shy away from the fact that the decision is rooted in soccer rationale, but he's excited to learn more about the country.
“I’ve never been to Armenia before, so in that sense I don’t have a connection," Zelarayan said through a translator. "But I’ve known about my last name being Armenian and my heritage, so while it is about the footballing side of things, there’s a real family connection.”
Columbus knew of this possibility when they signed him, president & GM Tim Bezbatchenko said, and are supportive of his decision. The Crew don't compete during this international window but MLS, unlike many other leagues around the world, historically doesn't completely pause their domestic schedule for international breaks. So the 29-year-old could miss matches in the future, all while adding intercontinental travel to his plate.
Armenia are in UEFA World Cup qualifying Group J, headlined by Germany in first place. They currently sit second, one point ahead of Romania and two ahead of North Macedonia. If they hold this place over their last four matches, they'll advance to a playoff to qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Armenia have never qualified for the World Cup.
Zelarayan has 13 goals and eight assists in 42 matches with the Crew after joining via a club-record transfer from Tigres ahead of the 2020 season. He led Columbus to an MLS Cup title in his first season, picking up MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi and Newcomer of the Year honors as well. He never represented Argentina (or Armenia) at youth or senior levels.
“Realistically, I know I don’t have much of a chance to make the Argentina national team," Zelarayan admitted. "This is a great opportunity to play World Cup qualifiers in UEFA, going up against great players I haven’t had the chance to play. That’ll just benefit me in the long run.”
Zelarayan will also have the opportunity to play alongside Roma attacker Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Armenia's captain and talisman.