The Crew won once and lost once without midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, a focal point of the offense. His production will dictate the fate of this stop-and-start 2020 season for his new club.
In his first game back from his ankle injury, on Saturday at FC Cincinnati, Zelarayan played 67 minutes in a 0-0 draw and didn’t have a significant impact on the game. But the Argentinian playmaker said he needed to sit out two games with his ankle injury in order to play at full health.
"It was hard to sit out for a few games, but the fact is that it helped me to return to 100% on both a physical level and helped me return to my rhythm," Zelarayan said Monday through a club translator. "I still have to regain my rhythm entirely, but I'm happy to be back and to be able to play now."
There were no signs, statistically speaking, during the MLS is Back tournament in Florida in July to suggest Zelarayan was limited physically. He scored twice and added two assists despite playing through the ankle injury.
Zelarayan said it was painful to play through the injury in the MLS "bubble," but he no longer feels any limitations physically after missing two games, other than building up his fitness to play a full game.
"Physically, I felt tired in the second half," he said. "I wasn't able to connect as well as I would have liked, and on a personal level I don't feel that I had the best game. In terms of their defensive system, they didn't give us a lot of space, so there wasn't a lot to work with there."
He’s right. FC Cincinnati made life difficult for any player — mainly Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe — in the center of the field as its defense sat about as deep in its own penalty area as any team could.
Zelarayan did get one shot away, which just missed the near post from the top of the box and was the Crew’s best scoring opportunity in the second half. He completed 18 of 24 passes and had one key pass.
Nagbe said when Zelarayan is being pressured, Nagbe and fellow midfielder Artur need to be available, then pass to the opposite side of the field and try to attack quickly in order to break down teams that want to take away those central connections in the Crew attack.
"If we can't (attack quickly), get it and switch it again," Nagbe said. "Just more patience, I would say."
Being out of the lineup forces Zelarayan to rebuild some of that on-field chemistry to execute the finer details of the attack. So far, coach Caleb Porter said Zelarayan has reintegrated well, which is important for a team that revolves around him.
"I think he handled it well. I think we didn't handle it so well," Porter said. "We managed it OK, but it's always better to have him in. And I honestly think this: If we would have had him in through 90, we would have found a goal."