The Columbus Crew made it two wins from two to start off group stage play at the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament and a big reason for it is the play of midfielder Lucas Zelarayan.
Zelarayan joined the club this offseason as a Designated Player and hasn’t missed a beat in Caleb Porter’s squad. After a magical free kick goal and assist on Sunday, the Argentine netted his second goal of the tournament in Thursday’s 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls.
The 28-year-old picked up a pass from Derrick Etienne and rifled a low shot past David Jensen, which iced the win for Columbus. Zelarayan’s influence on the club in a short period of time has helped the Crew not only clinch a spot in the knockout round of the tournament, but remain unbeaten in 2020 as a whole,
Porter praised the playmaker’s ability to lead the midfield and is expecting more of him down the road.
“He’s a tremendous player, and I think he’d be a tremendous player on any team,” Porter said post match. “As much as I’d like to take credit for what he’s doing, he’s doing it because he’s a quality player. We signed him to run our midfield, be the brains of our team, be a true 10, a chance maker, a goal scorer, and he’s really fun to watch, he’s a special player, and he’s going to be a special player for years to come in this League and in our Club.”
“I think what really makes him unique is that as good as he is, he’s really humble. When you’re making Designated Player signings, that’s a key thing, because when you’re bringing a guy into your locker room, he has to warrant the DP tag, but also, if you want a quality locker room with your guys, you need a DP that doesn’t think he’s better than everyone else, and so we’re really pleased that he’s not only a great player but a great guy, and that’s just as important to us in this Club.”
Zelarayan now has three goals and one assist in four appearances since joining Columbus with plenty of more chances to add to those totals. A convincing win over the Red Bulls moves the Crew one step closer to topping Group C with next week’s clash with Atlanta United next on the schedule.
After playing only 56 minutes on Thursday, Zelarayan could get a longer shift against the Five Stripes, with the Crew aiming to keep their shutout streak alive. Zelarayan’s presence on the field has impressed not only his head coach, but his teammates as well.
“The Club actually looked at him for a long time before they brought got him on board,” Porter said. “We’ve seen just a glimpse of what he can do. We’ve seen things he does at training, and we know he’s got more inside. We’re just happy to have him here. He’s such a great player and even a better person off the field. We’re in a great spot having him with our team.”
Berhalter impresses in first start for Crew
When any young player gets their first professional start there are likely to be nerves, but Crew midfielder Sebastian Berhalter held his own against the Red Bulls.
Berhalter started and played 56 minutes next to veteran Darlington Nagbe, impressing in his shift before being substituted off after halftime. The 19-year-old Homegrown product was rewarded by Porter with his first start, four days after getting a 14-minute cameo against FC Cincinnati.
Even at a young age, Berhalter didn’t look out of place even with his father, U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Gregg in attendance.
“I thought he did a great job today,” Porter said. “I think it was a good first start for him, a good first step. He’s a young player and it’s really important that young players make steps, and ideally you want to make steps forward. Sometimes a young player makes steps backwards, but he’s making a lot of steps forward right now.”
“It’s great for him to get that first debut the last game, it was great this game for him to start and for him to gain confidence. It’s really important when you have young players that are cracking in to your team that they get opportunities to play, gain confidence, develop but, also you have to be really careful with young players, because if you throw them into the deep-end, they drown, they lose confidence and go backwards.”
Berhalter won eight of his 13 duels while also winning two tackles and making six recoveries. With Nagbe covering him in midfield, Berhalter was free to play his style and looked confident doing so, before being replaced along with Nagbe in the second-half.
He will have more chances to play as the season goes on, but his impressive shift on Thursday should have Crew fans excited for what’s to come.
Crew remains up for challenge with team working together for success
While Gyasi Zardes and Zelarayan may have grabbed most of the spotlight for the Crew, the entire team has remained up for the challenge of winning the MLS is Back Tournament.
Both players scored the key goals in Thursday’s win, but ultimately it was a total team effort to earn three points. Veteran defender Jonathan Mensah led the backline with 13 clearances, Derrick Etienne and Pedro Santos both registered assists, and Darlington Nagbe’s connection with Sebastian Berhalter allowed the playmakers to roam free.
With two wins, a +6 goal differential, and most importantly six points in their pockets, the team is staying together to achieve their ultimate goal for the season.
“Everyone’s been up for the challenge, and like coach Caleb Porter said today, I totally agree that Jonathan was also our MVP of the game today,” Crew left back Hector Jimenez said. “As you see, he cleared everything off and he was a warrior.”
“At the end of the day, we all step up in big moments, and we’re extremely happy to have six points, two shutouts, and obviously we look forward to the game against Atlanta. By no means are we looking past them. We want to take nine points away from these first three games, and we’ll be ready for that test a couple days from now.”
Defensively, the Crew has only allowed three total shots on goal between 180 minutes of soccer. They became the first team since the Philadelphia Union in 2013 to keep the Red Bulls without a shot on goal, frustrating one of the favorites to win Group C for a full 90 minutes.
With a good mixture of attacking talent and overall strong defensive work ethic, the Crew will certainly go into the knockout stage as a favorite to reach the tournament final. Should they roll past Atlanta United in their first group stage match, those odds will continue to increase despite tougher challenges around the corner.
“We’re really, really happy with the two performances,” Jimenez said. “We’ve been playing some really good soccer. It’s important that we keep our feet on the ground and keep moving forward. We cant look too far ahead, but we’re happy where we’re playing and hopefully we can move forward with Atlanta, get another three points, and go far in this tournament.”