Speaking after his team’s 1-0 win over New York City FC on Sunday afternoon, Columbus Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter remarked that perhaps they wouldn’t have found a goal in a similar situation last year.
But now they have a dynamic midfielder in Lucas Zelarayan, who spun NYCFC midfielder Alex Ring in the 56th minute for a left-footed, curling finish to the far post. The 27-year-old's strike was all Columbus needed to earn three points at MAPFRE Stadium after NYCFC center back Maxime Chanot was shown a red card in the third minute, altering the Eastern Conference clash.
“I’ve been telling you guys he’s a special player, I’ve seen it every day,” Porter said of the Argentine playmaker. “He’s a difference-maker and that’s why we brought him here. You need difference-makers in your team. Of course we need to be good as a group, but there’s not a good team in the world that doesn’t have difference-makers individually that can pull off plays.”
GOAL: Lucas Zelarayan opens his MLS account to open the scoring for Columbus
Signed this offseason from Liga MX side Tigres UANL, Zelarayan fills the role left behind by his countryman and reportedD.C. United target Federico “Pipa” Higuain. Last year, Higuain went down with a season-ending knee injury, forcing winger Pedro Santos to fill the No. 10 role as the Crew missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs during Porter’s first year at the helm.
Now, Porter believes the club’s reported record-setting $7 million transfer has even more to give.
“We didn’t find him enough in the first half, [but] part of that was just the chemistry continuing to build and understanding you can play him in really hard spots in between the lines,” Porter said. “When he gets in there, he’s really clever, he knows how to work himself out of those spots and then create chances. I thought he showed that on the day and was a big reason we won the game. Unbelievable goal as well.”
Zelarayan is just one part of a busy offseason for Columbus, however, and Porter offered lofty praise for several players who weren’t fixtures last year. He called center back Vito Wormgoor a “complete warrior” and midfielder Darlington Nagbe, acquired via trade from Atlanta United, the best in the league at what he does. Regarding left back Milton Valenzuela, one of two Crew Designated Players to miss 2019 with a season-ending injury, Porter called him a “top, top class” player.
The pieces look bright in Columbus, but the NYCFC win is merely step one around the club’s broader aims.
“I wanted to be still more convincing, but anytime you can pick up three points, I don’t care how you do it, I don’t care where you do it, we’re going to celebrate it and enjoy it,” Porter said. “But we know there’s still a lot to work on."