When Columbus Crew SC landed Lucas Zelarayan on a reported $7 million transfer fee this past offseason, club president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko described the move as a “statement of intent.”
Zelarayan arrived in MLS from Liga MX side Tigres UANL, a club-record signing who was the missing piece in Columbus’ roster evolution. That investment cultivated expectations, with the Crew’s new No. 10 hoping to carry forward the legacy of longtime maestros Federico Higuain and Guillermo Barros Schelotto – two other Argentinian playmakers who found great success in central Ohio.
After Saturday’s MLS Cup triumph, Zelarayan left little doubt that ownership's investment was worth it. The Designated Player supplied two goals and one assist in the championship match, which ended with a 3-0 victory for Columbus over the Seattle Sounders, who were gunning to repeat as champions.
Head coach Caleb Porter called Zelaryan’s performance “unbelievable,” then explained a post-game moment they shared.
“We shared a great moment after the game, he said something that I'll never forget," Porter said. "He told me I changed his life and I told him he changed my life. I brought him here to win championships, he seemed to be looking for something new to stimulate him, reinvigorate him. These guys are people – yeah they make money, yeah they got to perform. But they're people and a lot of times I've seen this with guys, they're cut-throat, they sell their souls a little bit and they lose their way. And he came here and I think he looks like a new man, but he's an unbelievably special player."
Watch: Lucas Zelarayan opens the scoring vs. Seattle
Zelarayan’s virtuoso showing earned him MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi honors, a logical conclusion after his two stunning goals. The 28-year-old first made it 1-0 in the 25th minute with a left-footed volley off an early Harrison Afful cross, then iced the game at 3-0 in the 82nd minute with a laser to the top corner. In between, he set up Derrick Etienne Jr.'s goal with a fake shot and slipped ball.
As ruthless as Zelarayan was on the field, he carried that same confidence into his mixed-zone interview afterwards. The 2020 MLS Newcomer of the Year knew Seattle presented a tall task, but he felt that Columbus’ quality was convincing.
“Ever since I arrived in the preseason, I found a very, very solid team,” Zelarayan said through a translator. “I was surprised, actually, because of the level they had was above. Most of the players, I didn't know them very well but the way they were working, it was something that really impressed me. I think in the second match, I knew we were going to do great things this year. We had a lot of trust, we had great players, we had a great pair of goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and I knew we were going to achieve great things this year.”
Zelarayan’s effort was even more remarkable when factoring in that Columbus were without winger Pedro Santos and midfielder Darlington Nagbe. The duo were ruled not medically cleared to play and later confirmed that they had tested positive for COVID-19 before the match, leaving two sizable holes that could’ve resulted in the Crew buckling.
Watch: Lucas Zelarayan picks out the top corner
Rather, behind a top-class performance from Zelarayan, the Crew answered the call. He finished with two goals and five assists in four games during the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, capping the year with a game one expects from a Designated Player of his caliber.
“This guy, he was showing the whole year what he can do,” Artur said of Zelarayan. “He makes the game easier for us and I try to do everything I can to help him to feel comfortable to do whatever he wants because he showed today what he can do. I'm very happy for him, also to come to the MLS and adapt so fast to the league and have a great performance today. I'm very happy for him, he's a great friend and it's just moments like that you never forget. Playing together with guys like that, it's amazing."