Tim Bezbatchenko says the moments that Lucas Zelarayán create are worth the price of admission – maybe more. Caleb Porter called Zelarayán the “Argentine Babe Ruth” inside Yankee Stadium. Teammates have called him the club’s best player.
How people describe LZ’s quality varies in word choice, but the message is always the same: We are all fortunate to watch Lucas Zelarayán play for the Columbus Crew. And the club wanted to make that known, too.
On December 2, the Crew announced that Zelarayán signed a contract extension to remain with the Black & Gold for the foreseeable future. While the Armenia international was still under contract for 2022, the move reiterates the club sees its No. 10 as the player to build a roster around.
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“Lucas has overperformed in a lot of ways over the past two years,” Bezbatchenko told the media last month. “It’s important in a global game that the contracts reflect what they do for your club.”
There’s no denying what Zelarayán has contributed for the Crew.
In two seasons with the team, he’s guided Columbus to a second MLS Cup title and a berth in Concacaf Champions League. During this past season alone, he was named to the league’s “Team of the Week” six times. He was the Player of the Week twice.
“I don’t know how many goals he scored or how many assists he had the whole season, but I think he was the best player we had the whole season,” left back Milton Valenzuela said after the regular-season finale. “He’s a different player.”
With that in mind, the organization wanted to ensure Zelarayán had a contract that reflected that.
A selfless, team-first player, the playmaker made 32 regular season appearances and 28 starts for the Crew in 2021. From that, he generated a team-leading 12 goals and seven assists, meaning he was involved in 41.3% of the team’s goals in league play.
As for three appearances in the Concacaf Champions League, he had a goal and two assists. He was also the Man of the Match in the Crew’s 2-0 win over Deportivo Cruz Azul in the Campeones Cup – the first occasion in which the team hoisted an international trophy.
“Lucas Zelarayán, a lot of people won’t agree with me on this, is the best attacking player in our league,” Porter said after the No. 10 helped the 10-man Crew earn a draw at rival FC Cincinnati in July. “When he played like he played today, I don’t see a guy in the league better than him.”
If anyone needed a reminder, just look at what should be the goal of the year…
… or watch one of his late free kicks at New York City FC, which turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win deep into stoppage time…
Zelarayán’s eight goals from outside the 18-yard box led MLS, and his five free kick goals set a single-game record for the Black & Gold. Add this to his 79 key passes throughout the season, and it doesn’t take much convincing to see how impressive he’s been since he joined from Liga MX side Tigres UANL roughly two years ago.
“He creates moments worth the price of admission, maybe more,” Bezbatchenko said.
So, how will Zelarayán perform in 2022? A safe bet suggests a repeat display of 2021, but with a side competing for another MLS Cup.
We’ve seen what he offers as a midfielder. Add that to an injection of creativity on the wings, USMNT striker Gyasi Zardes and an emerging Miguel Berry, and suddenly a club that missed the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs by a point could be a championship contender in a few months’ time.
During the last five games of this past season, Zelarayán recorded at least one goal or assist in every match (four goals and three assists).
Time and time again, he has proven to be the playmaker who can will the Crew toward a positive result. That’s certainly not something fans take for granted, and the club feels similarly.
Lucas Zelarayán was always going to wear Black & Gold in 2022, but with a new contract extension, it’s clear that he’ll be valued for what he’s worth. As for the rest of us, let’s keep enjoying watching him create moments worth more than the cost of admission.