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Jonathan Mensah showing improvement as he gets fit

The defender was vital to hold Montreal’s pressure on Saturday, but he still struggles with the ball on his feet.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Meram was the undisputed hero of Columbus Crew SC’s 3-2 road win against the Montreal Impact last Saturday, but another player for the Black & Gold had a remarkable performance in Canada: center back Jonathan Mensah.

The Ghanaian defender played arguably his best match for Crew SC and stepped up in the second half, playing a pivotal role to sustain the pressure of the Impact in their pursuit for the third goal.

Jonathan used his physical tools to amass 10 clearances, most of them in the air, his smartness to make four interceptions and his good positioning to block two shots inside the defensive penalty box as demonstrated the image below (you can see Jonathan’s defensive interventions, with clearances highlighted in purple, interceptions in blue and blocks in yellow).

“He brings a layer of physicality that there’s probably like four center backs in the league who have,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter of the Designated Player. “So of course we didn’t have that. When you talk about perhaps the Roman Torres’ and some of these ultra physical center backs, he has that quality.”

The promising performance came in a good moment, as Jonathan, who signed with Columbus in the offseason but missed preseason as he was playing the African Cup of Nations for Ghana, had his starting spot challenged by rookie Alex Crognale. With Jonathan missing time first due to suspension, then injury, the Homegrown product took his opportunity and ran with it.

Thanks to the good performance against Montreal, which followed three consecutive 90 minute matches, each one better than the next, Jonathan is beginning to show why he’s in the starting XI and prove he is what Crew SC invested in.

“We knew exactly what he could do,” Berhalter said. “When you don’t have a preseason, when you don’t have the rhythm, it’s difficult. As he gets into rhythm, other people start to see, because we think he is a really good player and that he gives us an element we didn’t have before. And we are really happy to have him.”

However, if Jonathan seems to be finding his best defensive game with Crew SC, the same cannot be said about his understanding of the team’s playing style as the defender is still struggling when distributing the ball out of the back. Against the Impact, it was apparent the number of unsuccessful passes surpassed the total of completed passes and that most of them go toward the center of the field, instead of the sides.

Such a poor passing performance is extremely dangerous for a center back, especially for one playing for a team that values possession. Against Montreal, one of Jonathan’s wasted possessions inside his own half led to Ignacio Piatti’s goal.

Jonathan is a two-time World Cup veteran and has already showed some glimpses of what he can do. However, he needs to keep improving to become the asset the club expects from one of the two defenders who carry a Major League Soccer’s Designated Player tag in 2017.

After scouting Jonathan and seeing him every day in training, Berhalter is confident he will keep and proving and demonstrate his quality.

“I think for him it’s going to be about continuing to get game time,” he said, “continuing to become familiar with this league and with how we want to play the game. And when he does that, he is going to be fine.”