As the final whistle chirped, Lucas Zelarayan started punching the air and let out a full-bodied “Vamos,” to celebrate the occasion.

Soon after, Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes ran toward their teammate and embraced him to celebrate the first Columbus Crew road win since 2019.

Saturday night’s come-from-behind 2-1 win against New York City FC at Red Bull Arena was arguably the Crew’s most inspiring display in 2021. Trailing early, while being outshot 9-0, the team responded and eventually took the lead in the 95th minute.

For a club that’s played in the doldrums since its exit from the Concacaf Champions League, the win was a reminder of the quality that the Crew possesses, and how beating NYCFC could serve as the starting point to an exciting summer.

By The Numbers Pres. by Ohio Business Machines | Zelarayan, the ‘Argentine Babe Ruth’ -

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But perhaps the biggest takeaway was the singular performance of Lucas Zelarayan, whose two free-kick goals reaffirmed his quality – and superiority – in MLS.

First came his long-range free kick in the 82nd minute that left NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson as a passerby before the ball knuckled in the air, tapped the crossbar, and nestled into the net.

WATCH | Lucas Zelarayan drills it from deep to equalize

The second goal arrived in the 95th minute, as the Argentine midfielder produced a dipping effort that chipped over the wall and spun into the bottom-left corner.

WATCH | Lucas Zelarayan does it again, this time with a game-winner in stoppage time

Crew head coach Caleb Porter referred to his goal scorer as an “Argentine Babe Ruth” for figuratively calling his shot and then sending the ball that direction. (If only NYCFC was in Yankee Stadium.)

“It’s just a different level (with) this kid, and I’m just so happy that it came through for him because I thought he was the best player on the field today (during) the entire game, and he stuck with it,” Porter said of Zelarayan. “He didn’t get frustrated. They swarmed him all the time, but I thought he and Darlington Nagbe were unbelievable in that second half at just helping us to continue to move up the field, continue to press ... continue to believe that we were going to maybe find a goal to change things.”

Examining the early-season results with Zelarayan

Porter was right about saying that Zelarayan is playing at a different level. The Crew is playing at a different level when the Argentine is on the field.

Including both league and continental matches, the Crew has only lost once in the eight matches that Zelarayan has played in, a 2-0 defeat at Toronto FC.

In the two matches the team has played without him, they’ve lost both.

While this stat speaks to the team needing to find an answer to replace him, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even the reigning MLS Cup champions have relied on one individual to carry their attack through the first portion of 2021.

Thanks to his free-kick brace, the club’s first since Federico Higuain in 2012, Zelarayan leads the Crew with three league goals, which have all come from free-kicks. No one else has scored.

That’s not to diminish other players, of course.

Runs from Gyasi Zardes led to two D.C. United own goals in the Crew’s 3-1 win earlier this month. Zardes also won the free-kick to set up Zelarayan’s game-winner on Saturday night.

“It’s a big help,” Nagbe said of his teammate sealing the win over NYCFC. “We know we’re still waiting for G to get his first goal, but he won that foul for us to get that second goal. All these little things go unnoticed, but as a player, we notice those things from our teammates. There’s definitely still room for improvement, but I thought the second half was great and it was just something to build off of.”

The Columbus Crew is undoubtedly one of the league’s best teams. They proved it last season and again against NYCFC. Once their attack converts the chances it creates, the team will only get better.

But the Crew also has one of the best players in the league, who’s shown that time and time again. Having a strong team can get you far in the playoffs.

Having a Lucas Zelarayan can win you another MLS Cup.

Up next, the Crew hosts Toronto FC on Saturday, May 29 at 3 p.m. at Historic Crew Stadium. |PURCHASE TICKETS

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