Columbus Crew SC today announced the signing of the team’s second current Designated Player, Ghanaian Jonathan Mensah. Yet the move came with very little fanfare for what is likely the club’s second-highest paid player.
As has been the case in the past, Gregg Berhalter and his staff aren’t necessarily looking for the biggest possible name, but rather the right fit.
“The first part of (acquiring a player) is identifying talent that you feel can fit into your team,” the team’s sporting director and head coach said. “We identified Jonathan as a guy that can fit into our team and make an immediate impact in Major League Soccer. We think his defending style, he’s dominant and we feel like he’s going to give the opposing forwards a real difficult time.”
Of course the second part is finding the necessary resources to acquire the player and convincing them that Major League Soccer is the right league for him. Columbus has to pay to get a veteran of two World Cups, but fellow Ghanian Harrison Afful played a part in helping both sides realize it would be a good fit.
“Part of the thorough evaluation process was reaching out to people that are familiar with him and trying to get as much backward information as you can,” Berhalter explained. “Of course we reached out to Harrison. He was able to shed some light on their experience together with the national team and he was very helpful.”
Due to Crew SC’s style of play, that evaluation process is a bit more difficult than some other teams. The heavy attacking style, which asks the wing backs to push forward frequently, relies on possession to keep the ball from the opponent.
It also requires the center backs to be ready at a moment’s notice because if the ball turns over, the Black & Gold typically have only two or three along the back line.
While Berhalter admits the possession aspect of Jonathan’s game is still a work in progress (“We’re going to need to continue to develop him in that area, but we think that he has enough qualifications to be able to play,” he said), he does believe he can fill the void of the big, ball-winning defender in the absence of Gaston Sauro, who is out of the season if not longer.
“There’s many times where we’re aggressive, we’re in the opponent’s half, and we need when that ball comes out for our center backs to be able to win the ball,” Berhalter said. “Gaston was excellent at that. So with him missing him, we need someone to pick up that slack. It’s important that we feel Jonathan’s able to do that.”
If you listen to Berhalter, there are plenty of positives with the addition of Jonathan. The one negative is that Jonathan, along with Afful, have both been called up to the Ghana National Team for the African Cup of Nations. The tournament lasts from Jan. 14-Feb. 5 and Columbus’ preseason camp begins on Jan. 23.
While it’s not ideal to have these players away, especially Jonathan in his first preseason with Crew SC, Berhalter expects the duo to return for the final three matches before the March 4 season opener with the Chicago Fire.
“The two sides to that are that he’s going to miss the preseason and miss being around his teammates in that time period,” he said. “The positive side is he’s going to be fit because he’s going to be playing games in the African Nation’s Cup and a high level of games.”
Because of the talent of the player the club is getting, a Designated Player-level player, Berhalter is willing to deal with the consequences of early season lack of chemistry.
“We’re willing to take the drawback of him missing the first couple of weeks of preseason,” he said. “We still feel he’s going to hit the ground running because of his level of fitness and because he has a teammate who will help integrate him into our team.”
The signing of Jonathan may not be sexy or move the needle too much, defender additions rarely do, and Mensah may not be a name that many fans recognize, but like Afful, or Gaston Sauro or Nicolai Næss, he has the potential to certainly be a factor for Crew SC.
“I think at 26-years of age, he’s played a very big role with the Ghanaian national team at center back in World Cups and at African Nations Cups,” Berhalter said of Jonathan. “So he’s been playing a big role there. What I’d say is, the Russian league, his last stop, is a very difficult league. Very good skill, very good counter-attack ability, playing against very good forwards and he handled himself well. We think he’s ready for another step and that next step is playing a leadership role and we’re excited to see how he translates that.”