When the season kicks off at Mapfre Stadium on Sunday, all eyes will be on the team's biggest addition in years

It doesn’t feel like January, and this doesn’t look like an airport. On an unseasonably temperate Sunday afternoon, more than 100 people wearing black and gold Columbus Crew gear have gathered at an East Side industrial park about a mile south of John Glenn International. Amid the towering, nondescript warehouses and government buildings, they’ve found their way to Signature Flight Support, a fixed-based operation serving private aviators and charter flights.

The gathered are here to welcome the new face of their favorite soccer team. Inside the terminal, at the urging of the Crew staff, the crowd forms two lines by the door and rehearses some of the refrains that usually echo from the Nordecke on match days. They shout, “Columbus!” followed by a quick clap-clap-clap. They chant, “¡Yo si le voy, le voy al Columbus!” In their best balladeer voices they sing, “Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with Crew.”

When Lucas Zelarayán finally steps off the plane and into the building, the supporters unleash the warmest welcome they can muster: cheers, applause, handshakes, selfies, songs. Beneath the kind of meticulously styled haircut you expect to see on a soccer star, the 27-year-old Argentine beams. At the end of the tunnel of fans, he exchanges pleasantries with a gaggle of TV news crews, soft-spoken and maybe a little embarrassed at all the attention. Through a translator, he tells the reporters, “I hope to meet everyone’s expectations.”

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To be clear, the expectations are high. Crew SC paid handsomely to bring Zelarayán to Columbus, reportedly sending a club-record transfer fee of more than $7 million to his former team, Mexican superpower Tigres UANL. They plastered the attacking midfielder’s likeness on billboards and bus stops around town. They turned his arrival into a celebration — maybe not of Beatles-esque proportions, but how many Crew players have gotten a greeting anything like this? The franchise has gone all-in on Zelarayán. “I love his game,” Coach Caleb Porter says. “He was exactly the profile that we were looking for.”

Coming off a down season, Columbus made many significant roster adjustments ahead of 2020: parting ways with longtime linchpin Federico Higuain, acquiring two-time MLS Cup champion Darlington Nagbe, trading away homegrown captain Wil Trapp and signing Dutch center back Vito Wormgoor to shore up the backline. But no one move was as pivotal as picking up Zelarayán. As the team’s new No. 10, he’s expected to be the nucleus of the offense, a creative playmaker with technical skill and tenacity to deconstruct opposing defenses and fuel a desperately needed goal-scoring renaissance. He’s the man now, dog.

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He’s stepping into some big shoes. For the past eight years, Higuain held down the role as offensive catalyst, narrowly falling short of an MLS Cup championship in 2015 and departing as the club’s all-time assists leader (Higuain recently signed with D.C. United as a player and assistant coach). Before that it was Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the wizard who led the Crew to its only MLS Cup title while claiming league MVP honors in 2008. Both are club legends. And, like Zelarayán, both hail from Argentina. In a sense, then, Zelarayán is the latest in a storied lineage, a pipeline of Argentine midfield maestros guiding Ohio’s yellow soccer team.

He doesn’t see it that way, though. “They have their legacy here. They have their history here. They did a lot,” Zelarayán said (again through a translator) at the Crew’s Media Day in Mapfre Stadium’s Upper 90 Club just days before the season opener against New York City FC on Sunday, March 1. “So I’m not coming here to replace them. I’m coming here to work for the team and meet the expectations of the team, but I’m not here to replace them.”

It’s true that Zelarayán deserves to be judged on his own merits. On the other hand, he is quite literally replacing Higuain. The Crew went shopping for a new No. 10 upon parting ways with Pipa, who was out of contract, recovering from a knee injury and seemingly entering the twilight of his career. Porter makes the comparison explicit: “With Pipa and the knee and not being re-signed, we needed a guy to kind of be the next Argentine No. 10 to carry the torch here with the Crew.”

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Zelarayán grew up in Córdoba, Argentina’s second most populous city. His parents made their living repairing and manufacturing shoes, work he helped out with from time to time. But his passion was always soccer, and by the time his hometown club Belgrano recruited him into their youth academy system, it was clear he wouldn’t be following mom and dad into the shoe business.

He debuted with Belgrano’s senior team at age 19 and had become a starter by 21. Soon he was being rated as the team’s best player and hearing his nickname, El Chino, chanted by a stadium full of supporters. Starring for his hometown club was a dream come true, but when Tigres came knocking, the opportunity to make the leap to Mexico’s Liga MX was too good to turn down. “It was difficult,” Zelarayán said of the move to Monterrey. “I’m very close with my family. We’re a very tight-knit group, and at times there it was rough, but I was able to do what I needed to for my professional career.”

Liga MX splits every year into distinct fall and spring seasons. Zelarayán helped Tigres win three of eight possible championships during his tenure with the club, but despite his contributions they were willing to deal him when the Crew came calling.

“I think a lot of it came down to timing, to be honest with you,” Porter said. “[Tigres] had been champions for many years and they started to sign some new guys and cycle away from the other guys. And so that was the only way we were able to get him. And I was frankly pretty surprised that they would move him because when I watched, every time he played he was scoring goals and getting assists. But I think for whatever reason clubs move away from guys eventually, and he was a guy that they were keen on moving.”

The Crew was just as keen on the transaction. Porter traveled to Monterrey in late 2019 to watch Zelarayán play and to pitch him on a move to Columbus over dinner. “He’s the guy we wanted,” Porter said. “And I think the best way for a player to know that a club wants him is when the coach spends all day long flying down there to go see him and meet with him.”

Zelarayán said he’d heard of the Crew back in the Schelotto era but had not really followed MLS and knew nothing about Ohio. But the challenge of becoming Crew SC’s go-to guy at the dawn of a new era ultimately proved too enticing to pass up.

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The MLS arms race is escalating. The league has always been a destination for aging name-brand stars looking to extend their careers — and with Mexican superstar Javier Hernandez recently dubbing his move to the LA Galaxy “the beginning of my retirement,” that perception obviously persists — but well-funded new clubs like LAFC, Atlanta United and David Beckham’s expansion franchise Inter Miami are starting to attract elite players in their primes. The pressure is on to keep up with the influx of world-class talent.

Columbus has never been a glamorous destination for global soccer royalty, but the Crew is doing what it can to change that. Much of the effort is taking the form of new facilities set to open next summer: the much-ballyhooed Downtown stadium and a state-of-the-art training complex to be built at the Mapfre site, which will be known as the OhioHealth Performance Center. Crew President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko said such investments are necessary to keep pace with the league’s evolution, touting the new facilities as “integral” for wooing free agent signings not just from around MLS but from around the world. “We’re competing globally,” Bezbatchenko said. “It’s not just about beating that team down the road.”

They still have to beat the teams down the road, though. Ownership and executives have spoken in the past year about their plan to turn Columbus Crew SC into a global sports powerhouse, but — at the risk of getting into a chicken-egg argument — winning championships in MLS will be central to that goal. Figuring out how to do so in the meantime, without big-market allure or an infinite budget, is one of the toughest challenges facing the Crew SC brain trust.

“I think we all knew that we needed to make some additions to put ourselves in a position where we can keep up with the biggest-spending teams,” Porter said. “We’ll never spend more than a handful of teams, but can we sign some guys who are at least close? And then through our team concept, through our style of play and our team chemistry, that should allow us to now compete with those teams.”

If that reads like a tepid assessment of this off-season’s Crew acquisitions, Porter is far more enthusiastic when getting into the specifics of Zelarayán’s game. “He’s the brains of our team,” Porter said. [He has the] ability to get in positions, to pick the lock, break the back four down with final passing, with dribbling.”

In other words, he’s the full package.

“He’s got the rare combination of being a really good final passer and really smart in his positioning,” Porter continued, “but also individually, he can pull a rabbit out of a hat. He can unlock guys with the dribble. That’s pretty rare. Usually you see 10s that are really smart, they keep possession, but individually they can’t unbalance the opponent. Or you’ll see the opposite: You’ll see a slasher that really doesn’t give you that rhythm in possession. He does both.”

While stressing that they’ve only played three preseason matches together, Crew striker Gyasi Zardes also sounded optimistic about collaborating with El Chino: “He’s gonna find me in tight spaces. He’s so technical, and he has the ability to beat a guy and get a cross off. So I’m really gonna be paying attention to his movements on the ball and off the ball. I’m really excited to be on the field with him.”

The defining question for this Crew season will be whether Zelarayán lives up to the hype. Can he be the superstar his price tag suggests he should be? He’s either too shy or too wise to weigh in on that one beyond some boilerplate sports talk that suggests he’d rather let his performance speak for itself. “We had a great preseason,” Zelarayán said. “We’re very excited to get it going. The team looks good, and I just hope we get a good result on Sunday.”