The Columbus Crew are reportedly set to sign Tigres UANL attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan for $8 million. The Crew are rebuilding Caleb Porter’s midfield, a crucial part of his excellent Portland Timbers teams earlier this decade.
Over the course of the final two and a half months, quietly but effectively, the Columbus Crew developed into one of the better teams in the league. They lost just two of their final 13 matches, acquired 21 points, which is playoff pace at least, and beat teams like the New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union, all of which made the Eastern playoffs.
While the start of the 2019 season was wretched for team that lost their starting left-back and creative midfielder to season-long injuries and had replaced their head coach in the offseason after the former was poached by the U.S. Men’s National Team, the latter stages of the campaign were extremely encouraging.
It is easy to see why it took time. Caleb Porter, the man who replaced Gregg Berhalter last winter, is an intense, detailed, intelligent coach with clear tactical philosophies that his players must abide by. You cannot implement a system overnight. It took the Columbus Crew players half a year to understand what Porter was asking of them and then execute. But once they did, real improvements were made.
Porter is an astute coach. His time in Portland from 2013 to 2017 is proof of that. Two Western titles, an MLS Cup victory in 2015, the Timbers were one of the premier teams in MLS throughout his time there, even if he suffered some down years in which his team missed the playoffs entirely.
That great Timbers team was built on a brilliant central midfield featuring Diego Chara, David Guzman and Darlington Nagbe, as well as Diego Valeri who would drift across the pitch with positional freedom afforded the 2017 MLS MVP, such was his creative instinct and influence. And now Porter is trying to emulate something similar in Columbus.
Nagbe has already arrived in a blockbuster trade from Atlanta United, the bustling midfielder viewed as the ideal press-resistant distributor from the base of the midfield. And now the Columbus Crew are already looking to add a second star to their midfield, Tigres UANL attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan in a deal worth a reported $8 million.
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The price is steep for a bit-part Liga MX attacking midfielder who has 23 goals and 14 assists across 139 appearances, although many of these came from off the bench, but if Zelarayan can impact the Crew as his talent and quality suggests, especially given his DP status, an overpay is not the worst thing in the world.
While MLS is a selling league in some parts, that also makes it a buying one in others. And the elite tier of clubs that is beginning to establish has done so because of the investment they are willing to make in the squad. The Crew, then, are playing catch up, and sometimes that requires overpaying a little to secure the player you want and need.
Adding a very capable attacking midfielder to the mix suddenly hands Columbus one of the best central midfields in MLS. With Pedro Santos also able to play inside if necessary and Artur and Wil Trapp manning the deeper positions, Porter has the formidable central midfield that he built his success on in Portland.
It is not a surprise that the best teams in MLS are often those with the best central midfields. It is the most important position on the pitch. And like with the Timbers before, Porter is again going about building an elite central midfield. For the quietly excellent Crew, it might just turn them into a playoff-contending team in 2020.