According to Zelarayan, his integral role marked the difference from past trophies won, starting from his Opening Match game-winner to eventually earning MLS Cup MVP honors following a two-goal, one assist performance as the Club's No. 10 playmaker.
The acknowledgment from Zelarayan came after his and head coach Caleb Porter's on-field admission immediately following the MLS Cup win about exactly how important this transition to Columbus has been for the former UANL Tigres player.
"We shared a great moment after the game. He said something that I'll never forget. He told me I changed his life. And I told him he changed my life," Porter said.
Zelarayan came into Columbus with a bang on March 1, scoring the game-winning goal over NYCFC and capped it off appropriately with another game-winning performance over Seattle in MLS Cup.
It's impossible not to see a strong positive correlation between the Crew's results this season and Zelarayan's playing, as the Club went a perfect 12-0-0 when the Argentine scored a goal or recorded an assist this season, including 7-0-0 this season when the Argentine scored. With Zelarayan in the lineup, Columbus went 9-3-4 overall during the regular season, including 7-2-3 when he started.
Of course, the Crew's final four-match home stretch through the playoffs is when the value of Zelarayan's ceiling showed itself to all, as the midfielder recorded five assists, including four assists on the Club's first six postseason goals. In other words, on average, Zelarayan directly created or finished a goal-scoring play every 55 minutes through his first four career playoff matches.
When asked to describe Zelarayan's level of play in MLS Cup, Porter put it succinctly: "I've coached good players, [but] this guy is unbelievable."
That's certainly a fair description considering the midfielder, who found himself searching for opportunity outside of Tigres, managed to immediately become an impact player, totaling eight goals and nine assists in just 14 starts.
It's one thing to acclimate oneself to a new Club, city, and country, but it's a whole other level of mental wherewithal to quite simply will the Crew to a commanding MLS Cup win over the defending champs.
Zelarayan, who had previously admitted 2020 was a different and difficult year for him despite being named the League's Newcomer of the Year, showed only signs of growth, promise on the biggest stage, and as Porter said, "If you rewatch the game, I don't think he had a wrong step for 90 minutes."
In addition to being directly involved in seven of Columbus's nine postseason goals, Zelarayan not only helped account for all three goals in MLS Cup, but also led the team in passing accuracy (min. 20 passes), total passes in the opponent's half (23), touches (68), duels (23) and duels won (13), tackles (4), and fouls won (5).
- GOAL | Zelarayan's game-winning volley in MLS Cup
- GOAL | Left-footed finish from Zelarayan seals championship
- HIGHLIGHTS | Columbus 3, Seattle 0 | Dec. 12, 2020
Porter stated the obvious when he said he brought Zelarayan to Ohio to win championships, but what remains "unbelievable" – even after two weeks since Columbus lifted the trophy – is who exactly that man is, or rather, who he's come to be in such a short time.
"I brought him here to win championships," Porter said. "He seemed to be looking for something new to stimulate him, reinvigorate him. These guys are people. Yeah, they make money. Yeah, they have to perform. But they’re people and a lot of time – I've seen this with guys – they are cutthroat, they sell their souls a little bit and they lose their way. He came here and I think he looks like a new man. But he's an unbelievably special player. I mean, unbelievable."
Now, as Zelarayan enters his second season in Columbus, it won't be the only city acknowledging his stature, as the 28-year-old returned to his hometown of Cordoba, Argentina last week to witness the creation of a city mural painted in his honor.