As Lucas Zelarayán stood over the ball waiting for the official to allow the free kick, the question wasn’t if the Argentinean would score, but where he’d place his shot on target.
Roughly two months earlier, against the same opponent, Zelarayán produced a pair of free kick goals and lifted the Columbus Crew past New York City FC, 2-1, at Red Bull Arena. On Saturday night, he was tasked to do the same inside Lower.com Field, where the match was tied, 1-1.
We know what happened next. The playmaker lifted the ball up and around the wall and past NYCFC goalkeeper Luis Barraza – just like Zelarayán converted free kicks against Sean Johnson weeks earlier.
The noise inside the stadium uncorked, the lights started flickering and the music blasted. Yet again, Zelarayán scored from a free kick and reminded everyone why he might be one of the best goal scorers in Crew history.
His 68th-minute effort was his fourth free kick goal this season, shattering the club’s single-season record, which Robert Warzycha held with three goals.
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Zelarayán already has three free kick goals against the same opponent roughly one-third into the 2021 regular season.
“He’s very good on dead balls, he’s lethal,” head coach Caleb Porter said of his No. 10. “The guy continues to just prove why I believe strongly that he’s one of the best players in the league.”
With his game winner on Saturday night, Zelaryán ties David Beckham for third place on the MLS list of most free kick goals in a single season. Beckham’s four free kick goals came in 2012, his last season in MLS as a player.
The only player standing between Zelarayán and the single-season record is Sebastian Giovinco, who scored five in 2015 and six in 2017.
Again, Zelarayán has only played in 12 matches this season, meaning he’s converting a free kick every three matches. If he continues at this pace, he could finish the season in double digits.
“I always practice my free kicks,” he said. “It's nice to be able to be in contention for a record like that. I know there have been some great players that have set those records, so being able to contend for something like that is very special to me. I’m going to continue working.”
His dead-ball value can’t be understated, especially for a Crew side that had 12 players unavailable against NYCFC. In a match where Columbus played deep in its own half against the NYCFC press, one free kick on the edge of the box can be the difference between the Crew producing a positive result.
Consider this: Columbus is sixth in the Eastern Conference standings with 20 points from 13 games. Of those, six points have come against NYCFC. Specifically, the three free kicks Zelarayán has scored against the club amount to 30% of the club’s points at this point of the season.
It’s not a stretch to say those points, or his future free kicks, decide where the Black & Gold finish the regular season, and how far they can advance this postseason.
As he stood over the ball, all of us wondered how he’d beat Barraza – not if he could. The same went for Darlington Nagbe, who scored the opener in first-half stoppage time.
“I’m thinking it’s a goal,” Nagbe said. “At this point, at the rate he’s scoring these because he’s a great weapon for us, for the team. He makes (us) a little bit more dangerous and I’m just glad he’s here.”