It’s been a few hours and I still can’t process what I witnessed. After Eloy Room made some incredible saves to keep the Columbus Crew alive, Lucas Zelarayan stole the show, single-footedly flipping a one-goal deficit to a one-goal victory with a pair of late free kick goals. New York City FC, poised to claim a well-earned 1-0 victory, instead fell victim to a snatch and grab mugging befitting of their hometown.
In the 82nd minute, Zelarayan hammered a knuckleball that left NYC goalkeeper Sean Johnson flatfooted. He started to go to his right, but the ball suddenly zagged to his left. It was hit much too hard for Johnson to adjust, so he just stood there, like taking a called third strike from a hybrid of fireballer Nolan Ryan and knuckleballer Phil Niekro.
After that goal, I seriously typed out the following tweet: “Wouldn’t it be funny if he did it again and the Crew somehow won this game?” I deleted it without sending because I didn’t want to jinx it. But it did come to mind.
When the Crew won a stoppage-time free kick 18 yards plus three blades of grass from the New York City goal, I was overcome with tweet-deleter’s remorse. I knew it as going to happen.
And what happened was this, in the fifth minute of stoppage time:
From an area that is almost always deemed to be “too close”, Lucas Zelarayan took a one-step approach and gently curled a perfectly placed dipper over a leaping wall and into the net. The nonchalance was as jarring as the end result.
Zelarayan not only scored two free kicks, but they were two totally different freekicks. One was a vicious screamer from distance, while the other had all the urgency of practicing his pitching wedge at the driving range.
“I’ve never scored two free kick goals in the same match,” Zelarayan said afterward. “It’s the first time in my career I have done that. Standing over the ball, I tried concentrate on scoring and I tried to visualize that.”
Lucas visualized it in advance, but Crew fans will never be able to stop re-visualizing the end result.
Zelarayan’s performance made some history for head coach Caleb Porter.
“I’ve never coached a player who scored two free kicks in a game,” he said. “It was unbelievable. It’s just a different level.”
There’s a reason Porter has never coached a guy who scored two free kicks in a game. That’s because it’s some awfully long odds. The ever-helpful Rick Lawes at MLS HQ advised me that ever since free kick goals were specifically and officially marked as such by Elias Sports Bureau in 2003, Zelarayan is only the sixth player to score two direct free kicks in a single game. That averages out to one league-wide occurrence every three seasons. As many Columbus fans remember, one of the five prior incidences was authored by Columbus legend Federico Higuain in a 4-3 home win against New England on August 25, 2012.
Doing additional newspaper research, I was also able to determine that Zelarayan’s third free kick goal of the season has tied him with Robert Warzycha for the Crew’s single-season record. The Polish Rifle banged three free kick goals in 2000, starting with the memorable golden goal winner against San Jose on March 25, followed by free kicks at D.C. United on May 3 and at New England on August 6.
The goal was Zelarayan’s third direct free kick goal of the month/season. There have been 12 instances of a player scoring three direct free kicks in a season since the official records started being kept in 2003. (This means Warzycha’s separately researched feat from 2000 is not included.)
Additionally, despite it being just six games into the 2021 campaign, Lucas his halfway to the MLS record of six direct free kick goals in a single season, set by Toronto FC’s Giovinco in 2017.
Over the years, the Columbus Crew have been blessed with some incredible free kick takers and some amazing Argentine playmakers. Zelarayan is both. I dug through the Columbus Dispatch archives to document the free kick goals by noted Crew luminaries Robert Warzycha, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and Federico Higauin, in addition to Zelarayan.
Surprisingly, Schelotto only scored two free kick goals for the Crew. His more common artistry was to serve free kicks to the head of Chad Marshall. His only two direct free kick goals occurred on July 22, 2007 in a 2-0 win vs. Toronto and on July 17, 2008 in a 3-3 draw vs. Kansas City.
Higuain and Warzycha, however, are tied for the club record of six direct free kick goals in league play.
Warzycha, however, stands alone in all competitions, with seven. He scored a direct free kick goal against the Rochester Rhinos in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal played in Virginia Beach on September 1, 1999.
With that preposterous free kick goal against Cincinnati last summer and the more recent free kick goal against D.C. United earlier this month, Zelarayan has bumped his career total to four. He’s already within striking distance of Higuain and Warzycha for the Crew’s career record. (And also Giovinco’s single-season MLS record.)
And I’ve hit upon a plan to get him there….
Zelarayan’s Big Apple brilliance also led to additions to two of the favorite things I track.
First, Lucas produced the 16th stoppage-time tie-breaking game-winning goal in Columbus Crew history. It’s the first since Wil Trapp’s spiritually-uplifting By Columbus, In Columbus, For Columbus bomb against Orlando on July 21, 2018, during the dog days of the #SaveTheCrew battle.
(NOTE: I have to include the “tie-breaking” caveat because Robbie Rogers scored a retroactive game-winner in the final game of the 2007 season at DC. His was an insurance goal that put Columbus up 3-1 in the 91st minute. D.C. United then got a 92nd minute penalty kick on the final play of the game to make it 3-2 after the result was already in hand. Robbie’s goal that day was technically a stoppage-time game-winner, but it’s not the type of dramatic thing I’m after with this list. On a separate note, overtime games only count if the goal was scored in stoppage time of overtime.)
Fittingly, that list begins and ends (for now) with direct free kicks.
The other list that Zelarayan personally put his stamp all over is the list of times the Columbus Crew have come back to win a league match when trailing after 75 minutes. It was the 10th time in club history the Crew trailed after 75 minutes yet came back to win a league game. It was also only the second time it had ever happened on the road, with the other being the improbable three-goal outburst in the span of 4 minutes and 22 seconds to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win at Philadelphia in 2014.
Zelarayan joins Brian McBride on September 26, 1999 as the only Crew player to score both goals in a late-game six-point swing. His 95th minute game-winner was also the latest game-winner in any of these dramatic comeback victories.
What Lucas Zelarayan did Saturday night was amazing enough in real time. But it’s even more amazing when put into historical context.
What a moment. What a night. What a legend.
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