LOS ANGELES — Among the increased traffic back and forth between MLS and Liga MX in recent years, perhaps no one has enjoyed success on the scale and immediacy of Lucas Zelarayan.
The Columbus Crew smashed their club transfer record to bring the Argentine playmaker north from Tigres UANL ahead of the 2020 season, and “El Pirata” quickly vindicated that decision by leading the Ohioans to their second MLS Cup title, capped by a domineering MVP display in the cup final victory over the incumbent champions Seattle Sounders FC.
Now he’s set to reunite with some of his old friends from Mexico in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game presented by Target (9 pm ET | FS1, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada). And he laid down a pretty bold declaration during Monday’s pregame press conference at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium.
“There is not much difference between the leagues anymore,” said Zelarayan. “In recent years it has been shown that both countries have grown a lot. Matches between the national teams or teams from both leagues have been tight; that means that the leagues are at a similar level.
“MLS has caught up.”
Those on the southern side of the border rivalry might beg to differ, and they could cite Liga MX’s track record of superiority in Concacaf Champions League and Leagues Cup play to make their point. But Liga MX All-Stars coach Juan Reynoso suggested something similar, acknowledging that the once-yawning gap has closed considerably.
“The truth is that there is not much difference in the level anymore,” said the Cruz Azul boss, noting MLS’ growing numbers of outbound transfers to Europe as evidence of the league’s improvement and evolution.
Zelarayan was one elite talent among many on Tigres’ star-studded squad and has blossomed as the chief protagonist in Columbus. And this season he got a first-hand look at the flip side of the leagues’ rivalry during a Crew-CF Monterrey CCL quarterfinal series, having previously helped Tigres win the inaugural Campeones Cup over Toronto FC in 2018.
He’s observed notable differences in the cultures and mentalities of MLS and Liga MX, noting he and his All-Star teammates take seriously the concept of carrying their league’s flag on Wednesday.
“Each league has its things,” said the Belgrano academy product. “I think MLS focuses a lot on the physical part of the player, and obviously also organizational matters … Mexico also has its difference, it is much more technical, it focuses more on good play from the first to the last team. Being so close and having so many competitions between them have improved each other.
“We are going to try to take it with great responsibility – we are representing MLS. We are going to try to show the level of this league and also provide a good show for the people.”