Harrison Afful was having a quiet Tuesday night at MAPFRE Stadium when Justin Meram fed him the ball on the edge of the penalty box in the 93rd minute.
Then magic just happened as the Ghanaian fullback scored an incredible goal to seal Columbus Crew SC’s 4-1 win over the New York City FC in the first leg of the MLS Cup Eastern Conference’s semifinals.
When Afful received the ball, NYCFC had seven players inside its own penalty area, at least five of them in position to stop the fullback’s run. But the Crew SC right back found his way through each of them before firing a subtle left-foot shot that gave goalkeeper Sean Johnson no chance in the final scene of a magical night in Columbus.
“I don’t even know what to say about that goal,” Meram said after the game. “Harrison’s special. Honestly, I just couldn’t believe the goal. But that’s him. He does this stuff in training sometimes that you guys don’t see. That’s what makes him special”.
The Ghanaian's technical gifts are probably his most valuable contributions to the team, as head coach Gregg Berhalter noted. In a system built to maximize plays created from the wings, a player like Afful has the potential to be a game-changer every night.
“He has an unbelievable ball control,” Berhalter commented. “It’s not normal, it’s not something you see very often. And that’s a good example of justifying technique in tight spaces, with pressure around. He’s usually really good on that stuff”.
The goal comes in a good moment for the 31-year-old, who struggled with a series of minor injuries in 2017 and faced a drop of performance compared to his last two seasons with Crew SC. The Ghanaian has now one goal and one assist in 2017, while in 2016 he amassed three of each.
Aside from the reduced offensive efficiency, Afful, the only remaining player from the Black & Gold’s 2015 MLS Cup team’s backline, also struggled at times defensively, which saw benched at points this year.
With Zack Steffen playing hero, Jonathan Mensah performing at a Designated Player level, Josh Williams proving his worth and Hector Jimenez being as helpful as ever with his versatility, Afful seemed somehow disconnected with them until the last matches.
“Harrison has been good,” Berhalter mentioned. “The focus that he had before the Atlanta United game was tremendous. In training, the intensity and the movement, and there was no surprise that he had a good game against Atlanta.
To follow it up was important for him. He needs to establish that he can continue to play at this level. We know that he is a high-level fullback for this league, and he just needs to keep doing it because he is quality”.
The goal, one of the most beautiful of the fullback’s career, also made him find the back of the net for the first time in over 12 months. The last time Afful scored was in October 2016, against the New York Red Bulls.
“Credit goes to all the guys,” Afful said. “I had been waiting for a long time to get a goal, and finally it happened this year. I’m happy and enjoying this moment”.
Having Afful confident and more productive could be crucial to Crew SC as the team goes deeper in the postseason. The right back has always been an important piece in Berhalter’s system and one of the best fullbacks in the league.
It’s time to show that again.