COLUMBUS, Ohio — Before joining the Columbus Crew, Lucas Zelarayan’s career was in a funk. Reduced to a bench role with Mexican side Tigres, Zelarayan found his confidence suffering, though he never stopped believing that he could be a special player.
The Columbus Crew had that same belief when they made the push to sign the Argentinian playmaker. Caleb Porter convinced his owners to break the club record by paying a $9 million transfer fee, then convinced Zelarayan that Columbus was the perfect place to revive his career, and become the player they both believed he could be.
Both men were rewarded for that faith on Saturday night, as they shared an embrace after Zelarayan played the game of his life. The Columbus Crew captured the 2020 MLS Cup trophy on Saturday night after posting a 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, and it was Zelarayan that proved the difference-maker in the final. The Argentine scored two impressive goals and added an assist in the one-sided affair at Mapfre Stadium, leading the Crew to their first title in 12 years, and earning MVP in the process.
“It is a dream,” said Zelarayan in Spanish. “I felt a grand connection with the team from the first moment that (head coach Caleb Porter) traveled to Monterrey to talk to me and showed that he wanted to sign me, that he had faith in me, that he confided in what I could do. Looking at this year, I think I made the right decision in coming here and to cap it off with a title is incredible.
“Not even in my best dreams would I have imagined it this way.”
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) December 13, 2020
Zelarayan would not have envisioned things unfolding for him in this manner a year ago. The attacking midfielder was a rotational player at star-studded Liga MX side Tigres UANL, seeing the field sporadically and nowhere near as often he would have liked. Confidence was at a real low.
Moving to the Crew for the 2020 season revived his career, however. Not only has the regular playing time helped Zelarayan rediscover his top form, but it has also seen him win individual awards for the level of his game-changing performances. First was the MLS Newcomer of the Year accolade for his showing in the campaign, and now the MLS Cup Final MVP.
All that has combined to create a deep level of gratitude for the playmaker, who told Porter after the final whistle on Saturday that the coach had “changed his life.”
“I think what was most important was that when I came here the coach told me the team was going to be built around me, that I was going to be the leader from a game plan standpoint, that I was going to be the No. 10,” said Zelarayan. “All that gives you confidence, especially when the coaches, the teammates, the executives tell you you are the best and they confide in you.
“That gives you the necessary confidence to focus only on playing and giving your best soccer.”
El Jugador Más Valioso pic.twitter.com/XUaKzRGXE1
— The Crew (@ColumbusCrew) December 13, 2020
The 28-year-old Zelarayan has provided just that throughout 2020 for the Crew, with Saturday’s performance only serving to underline his stellar form in his first MLS season.
He was involved in all three of his team’s goals vs. the second-best Sounders, scoring the winner on a volley at the back post in the 25th minute before finding Derrick Etienne Jr. for an insurance tally six minutes later. It was the game’s final goal that really stood out and showcased how good the South American attacker can be, however.
With Columbus trying to close out the match, Zelarayan conjured some more of his magic in the 82nd minute to remove any doubt over the outcome. He collected a pass from Luis Diaz at the top of the 18-yard box, and unleashed a ferocious finish that soared past outstretched Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei and into the top left corner.
Game. Set. Match. Title.
“I have coached good players. This guy is unbelievable,” said Porter. “If you rewatch the game, I do not think he had a wrong step for 90 minutes. He just got the ball every time. He carved space for himself all the time.
“… I brought him here to win championships. He seemed to be looking for something new to stimulate him, reinvigorate him. … He came here and I think he looks like a new man, but he is an unbelievably special player.”
All of MLS just witnessed how good Zelarayan can be when he feels an integral and important part of a team. The Crew have given him the platform to be just that, and the confidence regained as a result of that produced a tremendous individual performance in a championship victory.
“Coming here has made me very happy,” said Zelarayan. “I think this year I was able to be that player again that I had faith that I was. The Crew returned that confidence to me that I had lost a bit, and that is why I told (Porter that he changed my life).
“Today we were crowned with the title, and we are very happy.”