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Columbus Crew’s big signing signals new, welcome era

The new Crew owners said they would invest in talent. Friday, they signed Lucas Zelarayan, 27, an Argentine who won multiple championships with one of the top teams in Mexico’s Liga MX.

New Columbus Crew player Lucas Zelarayan (L) playing for Tigres during the Mexican Apertura 2019 tournament at Luis Pirata Fuente stadium in Veracruz Oct.18, 2019. (Photo by Victor Cruz/AFP)

Last week, as news leaked that the Crew was on the verge of spending millions of dollars on a new star, Crew fans were feeling — what? Surprised?

The new Crew owners, when they took control 11-plus months ago, said they would invest in talent. Could Crew supporters be surprised, then, that the Edwards and Haslam families lived up to this promise?

Well, this was something new.

The Crew on Friday announced the signing of Lucas Zelarayan, 27, an Argentine who won multiple championships with one of the top teams in Mexico’s Liga MX. He is an attacking midfielder, in his prime, and he cost the Crew somewhere in the range of $7 million to $9 million in transfer fee alone. His new contract has a three-year term with a fourth-year option and pays more than $1.5 million annually.

Get out of town. (Not literally, of course.)

For more than two decades, absentee owners looked at the Crew as a distant portfolio item or a handy Porta John. True story: In the mid-2000s, Crew players asked for a hot tub to tend to their aching muscles and ownership said, “Sure, we’ll go halfsies. Pass the hat in the locker room.” Another true story: The last owner tried to kill the market and move the franchise, like a frat prank.

Somehow, Major League Soccer’s first chartered team persevered in spite of ownership and, at times, management. The past two eras — often successful, at times spectacularly so — were defined by attacking midfielders of Argentine descent: The incomparable Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the indefatigable Federico Higuain willed the Crew to victory. Now, one of their countrymen takes up the baton amid even greater fanfare.

“We want to show there is a new level of ambition for the club,” Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said. “To get one of the best players off one of the best teams in Mexico is a new level. He had options. Monterrey is a beautiful place. He had other options. He chose Columbus. It’s an exciting prospect, and it bodes well for us as we go out and recruit.”

Higuain, 35, looked ageless until he blew out his right knee in late May. The question loomed: Where in the world would the Crew find Pipa’s successor? And when? And how much were they willing to pay?

Columbus is not Atlanta, the birthplace of soccer. The Crew can’t be shelling out $15 million transfer fees as the United did for midfielder Ezequiel Barco last year. That said, Zelarayan’s transfer fee, if not his annual salary, is one of the 10 largest in MLS history. It makes a statement for Columbus.

Until we can see Zelarayan with our own eyes, it’s fair to ask: After Incomparable and Indefatigable, is he the right guy at a critical position that is most difficult to fill?

Bezbatchenko’s pitch:

“(Zelarayan) has the talent and the ability to do a lot of things. He can transition quickly and play quickly one-on-one. He has the skill to hold the ball and serve it. He has a fast pace and he’s an extremely intelligent player. Tigres (his former team) have a number of stars, and he understands the importance of ball circulation.

“He played on a team that won a number of championships. We need a player who, when the lights shine the brightest, can score a goal or make the pass that finishes off the game.”

Over the past five months, Bezbatchenko has also acquired center back Axel Sjoberg, veteran midfielder Darlington Nagbe, wingers Luis Diaz and Youness Mokhtar, outside back Chris Cadden and goalkeeper Eloy Room. Early last week, he added Dutch center back Vito Wormgoor.

Crew coach Caleb Porter wants a versatile and dynamic team that moves the ball with alacrity. Bezbatchenko is providing the pieces. The owners are writing the checks, including a big, fat one to get Zelarayan.

These are strange times.
(c)2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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