While the Tim Bezbatchenko and Caleb Porter-led era for Columbus Crew SC kicked off around this time in 2019, the pair didn't truly begin their rebuild until the summer.
It was a sound plan. Former head coach Gregg Berhalter and new boss Porter believed in similar soccer principles, and the club continued with a roster that regularly competed in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Plus, with the MLS Cup-laden history of Bezbatchenko, the architect of Toronto FC's trophy-winning sides last decade, and Porter, head coach for Portland's 2015 MLS Cup triumph and a hugely successful stint at Akron, they had the benefit of doubt.
Throw in the #SaveTheCrew momentum that kept the club in Columbus under new ownership, and optimism was burgeoning.
But few plans in MLS could withstand seeing two Designated Players suffer season-ending injuries. Left back Milton Valenzuela didn't play a minute in 2019, while club legend Federico Higuain made his last appearance May 25. The Crew found themselves sinking further below the playoff line, let alone the Eastern Conference elite.
“It was unfortunate what happened last season, when we had two DPs go down in one season with season-ending injuries, which I don’t think has happened in league history," Bezbatchenko told MLSsoccer.com last week. "When you lose someone with the talent of Milton and Pipa (Higuain), they expose holes and you start to identify other issues you want to address.”
The injuries that sparked a run of poor results — the Crew recorded one win in 16 matches as spring gave way to summer — eventually kickstarted the club's rebuild. With US men's national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen also departing for Manchester City over the summer, Bezbatchenko and Porter dove straight into reloading the squad over two transfer windows.
Goalkeeper Eloy Room and midfielder Luis Diaz arrived during the summer, with both immediately becoming starting XI stalwarts. Youness Mokhtar, a winger, and Chris Cadden, a defender/midfielder loaned out to English side Oxford United after signing, were also brought in to improve squad depth. The club then moved swiftly in the winter, adding Darlington Nagbe via trade from Atlanta and veteran Dutch defender Vito Wormgoor.
If they stopped there, the Crew would have still been a popular playoff dark horse for 2020, mindful of the success Diaz and Room already enjoyed, plus Nagbe's track record in MLS. But that foundation put the club's brain trust in a position to place the crown jewel atop the rebuild. The resources were there — Bezbatchenko and Porter discussed requisite budgets and DP expenditure with ownership before joining the project.
They translated those talks into 27-year-old attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, a regular starter for Liga MX giants Tigres UANL. The Argentine arrived before Christmas on a club-record fee, reported by Jacob Myers of The Columbus Dispatch to be $7 million.
“The Zelarayan signing is a statement of intent and commitment in the team by ownership," Bezbatchenko said. "To compete in this league, you need a well-rounded team, we know that. But as we’ve seen over the last five MLS Cups — I had the pleasure of participating in a few of them — you need Designated Players, TAM players and difference-makers on the field to win. We felt we had a few of those, but needed more. This symbolizes the level of ambition of our front office and ownership.”
Knowing that the club had the resources and backing from ownership, Bezbatchenko and his staff began building out lists of potential acquisitions and, by this offseason, a shortlist.
“Yeah, it’s fun that you’re going to find a good player," Bezbatchenko said. "We felt Lucas was a solid one to land on."
After extensive scouting, the club determined Zelarayan was the top target of "three or four" they put down this winter. They knew the deal wouldn't be cheap, but it would be within their budget. So, they got to work on making it happen.
Bezbatchenko already had a relationship with Tigres president Miguel Angel Garza from when Toronto faced the Liga MX side in Concacaf Champions League play, helping to facilitate the move. Porter met with Zelarayan and there was a strong connection, too. Before long, both clubs and the player reached an agreement. The Crew had their creative successor to Higuain, a move ironically set in motion (in part) because of the club legend's season-ending injury.
The other players on the Crew's shortlist were younger and may have taken more time to acclimate with the team and to MLS. Conversely, Zelarayan is ready-made and already in his prime.
"We do feel like this roster right now is positioned to win," Bezbatchenko said. "We think we have a good blend of youth and experience in our squad. Lucas is 27-years-old, has won titles, been in big games and is a perfect fit."