While the Crew have plowed through an uneven 2021 campaign following their 2020 Cup triumph, Zelarayan's legend only keeps growing after performances like he offered during Wednesday night's 3-2 victory over Orlando City SC at Lower.com Field.
The Argentine-born Armenian international scored the eventual winner with a blistering strike from distance worthy of winning any match on the planet, after assisting early goals from Miguel Berry and Derrick Etienne Jr.
The victory pulled 10th-place Columbus within three points of seventh-place D.C. United, whom the Crew visit on Saturday with decisive Eastern Conference Audi MLS Cup Playoff implications on the line (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
"When you're in situations like this, your big players have to show up," said Crew assistant Ezra Hendrickson after a match manager Caleb Porter missed due to MLS health and safety protocols. "And tonight, Lucas Zelarayan, two assists and a goal, that's big-time and that's what you need from your guys like that when you find yourself in situations like this."
Zelarayan has appeared in all but two matches for Columbus this season. His nine goals from a playmaking role are tied with injured striker Gyasi Zardes for the team lead, and his seven assists mean he's been directly involved in nearly 40% of their tallies.
He's also become arguably MLS' best free-kick artist since Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, scoring on five attempts to move within one of the Italian's single-season league record from 2017.
And Zelarayan's best performances also tend to come at opportune times. He scored two late free kicks to lift the Crew to an unlikely away win over New York City FC in May. He won a return fixture against the Cityzens with another free-kick gem in July. And he has goals in both his Hell is Real Derby appearances this season against FC Cincinnati.
Although Wednesday's belter came in the run of play, it echoed those dead-ball strikes, a 30-yarder off the outside of his right boot that curled around Pedro Gallese's dive and into the far top corner.
Maybe it showed carryover from his first international appearances for Armenia, for whom he registered an assist in his international debut in UEFA World Cup Qualifying earlier this month.
"It's important to score and assist goals as much as possible because it helps me gain confidence," Zelarayan, 2020's MLS Newcomer of the Year, said through an interpreter. "It was a nice goal. I've now scored some beautiful goals with this team. I feel like maybe it's the best one I've scored, but the most important thing is that we were able to get three points and it helped the team win."
Columbus' playoff chances remain slim. But as long as they have a player capable of producing such magical moments on a consistent basis, the Crew aren't going to be waving any white flags.
"He's one of the leaders on the team and so he knows what this means for us," Hendrickson said of Zelalrayan, who has emptied the tank since his return from international duty, playing 329 minutes in 12 days. "We saw that effort that he put in and he told us at halftime that he probably had 10, 15 minutes in him and he was able to go a little bit longer than that. That in itself speaks a lot."