Warzycha Knows and Appreciates Zelarayan’s Free Kick Wizardry

The whistle blows for a foul. There’s a deadball opportunity just outside the opposing penalty area, well within shooting range. As you take measure and do your internal calculations, the goalkeeper shouts instructions to the several men comprising the human wall designed to take away half the target. It’s the final minute of stoppage time. Your legs already have several miles on them. The score is tied. All eyes in the stadium are upon you as the final result of the game hinges on one swing of your leg and any magic your right foot can conjure amidst the tension of the moment.

You’ve practiced this scenario thousands of times in your life, staying after training and smacking one ball after another over a fake wall from various distances and angles, trying to perfect the speed, launch angle, and spin rate that produces the dropping curvature necessary to clear the height of a leaping wall, yet still dip it under the crossbar, all while still having enough pace to power the shot past a diving goalkeeper. Even in the relative solitude of training, it’s little more than a 50-50 proposition, and the number of do-overs are limited only by the depths of your own desire.

This, however, is the real deal. It’s what all those extra hours of training are for. It’s one shot with the game on the line. Despite your immense talent and years of preparation, the fairy tale ending is still improbable. Perhaps you’re going to miss the target to some varying degree, whether that’s clanging the shot off the woodwork or launching the ball into orbit. Or perhaps you’ll blast the ball into the wall. Or maybe you’ll hit the shot where the goalkeeper can get a hand to it. But you can’t think about any of that now. In your mind, you know if you can steady your nerves so all that skill and preparation and concentration coalesce, enabling you to bang it just right like you’ve done so many times before in training, you’ll score a game-winning goal fans will remember forever.    

Only one man in Columbus Crew history can truly relate to what Lucas Zelarayan delivered to his teammates and the people of Columbus on Saturday night, when he curled an 18-yard free kick into the net in the fifth minute of stoppage time to lift the Crew to a 2-1 road victory at New York City FC.

That man is Robert Warzycha.

******

A little over 21 years ago, on March 25, 2000, Warzycha stood over the ball at Columbus Crew Stadium. MLS had just altered its rules to allow for a ten-minute sudden death overtime if a game was tied after 90 minutes. After Warzycha drew a foul the closing seconds of the extra session, one minute of stoppage time was added to the clock. The Polish Rifle would get to fire a shot from 30 yards out with the game in the balance.

Bullseye.

Warzycha blasted a shot over the wall, under the crossbar, and out of the reach of San Jose goalkeeper Joe Cannon. It was the first golden goal in MLS regular season history. Crew Cat carried a triumphant Warzycha off the field as the crowd of 16,095 went berserk.

Afterward, Crew coach Tom Fitzgerald said he’d never seen an ending like that in his life. 21 years later, following Zelarayan’s game-winner against New York City, longtime Crew fans wouldn’t be able to say the same.

That connection between eras is one of the greatest things about now having decades of history associated with the Columbus Crew.

******

Two days after Zelarayan’s legendary performance, I sought out Warzycha’s perspective on what that do- or-die free kick at the end of stoppage time is like for the man standing over the ball.

“You feel like you have a chance, and you feel like you can blow it. It’s putting pressure on yourself,” he says. “You need to control your nerves because you can be completely different when you’re nervous.”

This is where the training comes in.

“To be a good free kick taker, it’s the repetitions,” he says. “You have to have a natural swing, and you have to do the work. It’s repetition, repetition, repetition and you have to be dedicated. It’s a different feeling when you’re doing them in practice. In practice, you’re going to hit maybe six in ten (on target) because you’re trying different things. Maybe a different spin or something.”

Come the end of the game, however, there is only one shot to be taken, and you have to take it with some heavy legs after 90 minutes of running.

“You can run and run and run all game, and if you see a last second opportunity, you do not think about how tired you are,” he says. “You don’t think about how you might not pull it off because you’re tired. That’s the last thing you need in your mind. The first thing in your mind is where am I going to put it? Where is the goalkeeper? What kind of angle am I going to take? Because you have to make the decision of where you are going to put the ball.”

According to Warzycha, those are just preliminary thoughts that need to be discarded after a decision has been made.

“Once the ball is set, you’re not thinking about the wall and the goalkeeper anymore. You’re just trying to hit the spot you picked out. Sometimes players will try to switch it at the last second, but that’s never a good thing. The goalie doesn’t matter. And the wall doesn’t affect anything, because I can get up and down over any wall from 23 yards. Same with Lucas. When I am teaching free kicks, I tell people don’t worry about the goalie. He has no clue where you’re going to put the ball. He has no way of knowing whether you are going to go near or far post. Take the approach you always do, don’t change anything, and hit it really well.”

And if you do all that with the game in the balance and the ball hits the back of the net, like Zelarayan last Saturday or Warzycha 21 years ago, it’s rewarding on multiple levels.

“It tells you that the time you spent on the practice field was worth it,” Warzycha says. “It’s a feeling that you helped the team a lot because in the crucial moment, you did something that is very important. You get very excited in moments like this.”

******

In the 82nd minute, Zelarayan had an opportunity about 30 yards from goal, a little to the right of center. It was about as deep as Warzycha’s winner back in 2000, which was to the left of center. A shot from that distance is going to require some oomph. Zelarayan struck the ball with so much oomph it knuckled on its way to the net, changing direction on NYC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who was left helplessly flat-footed as the ball whizzed past him.

“The way adidas is making the ball right now, that’s how it goes sometimes,” Warzycha says. “Sometimes the ball goes left and then right, or right and then left. I think that happened on Lucas’s first free kick. I couldn’t believe he did it. I was thinking is he going to hit it or go for the far post? Then his approach to the ball was soft, but then that was a bullet. I mean, I was surprised. He hit that ball very, very, very well. Then there’s the movement of the ball when you hit it right, which in our case, was very good.”

As much as Warzycha appreciates a good long-distance free kick strike, it was the game-winner that left him astonished.

Earlier in our conversation, he had mentioned that he could get a ball up and down past any wall from 23 yards. The game-winner, however, was just a few blades of grass outside the 18-yard box, a distance that is usually considered to be too close, barring any sort of wall failure. Zelarayan, however, got the ball over a leaping wall and still made it dip under the crossbar despite the challenge of a short flight.

“To hit it over the wall from 18 yards is really amazing,” Warzycha says. “From that distance, you’re usually thinking, ‘I can’t get it over this wall so I am going to go to the goalkeeper’s side.’ I’m watching the game and I couldn’t believe he did that.”

That makes all of us. Judging by his celebration, maybe even Lucas himself.

******

After Zelarayan’s game-winner against New York City, I immediately reached out to the ever-helpful Rick Lawes at MLS HQ, who has access to the data at Elias Sports Bureau, the official record keepers of Major League Soccer. I told Lawes I knew Federico Higuain had scored two direct free kicks in a game for the Crew, but I had some other questions about Crew and MLS records relating to free kick feats. Lawes quickly got back to me with some answers. He told me, per Elias, Higuain is the Crew’s all-time leader with six direct free kick goals, and that Zelarayan is the first Crew player to score three in a single season. The email, however, came with a caveat. Lawes advised me MLS only began tracking free kick data in 2003.

Warzycha, one of the deadliest free kick takers in Crew history, retired after the 2002 season. His entire MLS career is missing from the official free kick data set.

This happens in many sports. The NFL did not track quarterback sacks as a statistic until 1982, so all NFL sack records come with that caveat. There was a time where the NBA did not track blocked shots or steals. The NHL didn’t compute plus-minus. Baseball didn’t monitor runs batted in, although those records were eventually reconstructed through painstaking research.

Taking a cue from reconstructive baseball research, I wanted to compile Warzycha’s historical free kick record, seeing how it is an important part of his lore with the club, not to mention how vital it is to the process of contextualizing Zelarayan’s present-day Crew accomplishments.

Combing through newspaper archives until three in the morning, I was able to confirm in my initial story about Saturday night that Warzycha scored off a direct free kick on six occasions, meaning Higuain actually tied his existing record. Warzycha converted three of those free kicks in the 2000 season, meaning Zelarayan actually tied Warzycha’s single-season record on Saturday, albeit with 28 games to play.

It has taken a combination of two Argentine Crew legends to equal a pair of Warzycha’s free kick records. Additionally, Warzycha converted a free kick in the 1999 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the Rochester Rhinos on September 1, 1999, giving him a total of seven direct free kick goals in all competitions, which is the standalone Crew record.

Zelarayan is on place to obliterate all those records. The current record-holder feels it is inevitable.

“I think with his ability and the way the team is playing, they’re going to get more chances around the box, so I’m assuming he’s going to score more,” Warzycha says. “Goalkeepers can’t prepare for that. This is all about Lucas. The way he’s striking the ball, the goalie has to cover the one post. If the goalie goes over behind the wall on the other side and Lucas puts it behind his shoulder, he’s going to look silly, so he can’t make the step too early. So I think it’s up to Lucas how he is going to hit the ball. I think he’s going to score a lot more because he’s a scorer. I mean, he’s got three free kick goals this month, so that means there is more to come.”

What’s striking to me is listening to the enthusiasm a 96er Columbus Crew legend has for a modern-day Crew legend. It was important for me to reconstruct Warzycha’s free kick records not only to ensure his prowess is not forgotten and is properly recognized, but also because it puts Zelarayan’s accomplishments in more astonishing perspective. And now it also makes Warzycha’s zeal all the more meaningful.

“I am so happy,” Warzycha says. “Not only is he a good player, but he brings something to the game that the other teams don’t have, and that can be very, very important. New York City is still asking themselves how they lost the game. Well, that’s it. You don’t have a guy like Lucas.”

******

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