For the Crew, the decision to bring Afful back for a sixth season was a pretty easy one.
“In all of our decisions, we have to factor in a lot of different things. The most important thing that we decide on always is whether or not we think the guy can perform for us inside the lines,” head coach Caleb Porter said on Wednesday. “With Harry, we know what he can do and we don’t see, based on this year when he was healthy, we don’t see any reason why he can’t do it next year. I think that’s very important.”
Afful is coming off a season in which he played the fewest games (22) since he debuted for the club late in 2015. The fullback suffered a broken jaw against Atlanta United in late March and missed 11 games recovering. Afful’s return helped spark a turnaround in what was a disappointing season for the Black & Gold, as the team went 8-7-7 with Afful in the lineup in 2019.
The broken jaw limited Afful statistically to two assists on the year and just 19 shots, a far cry from what the right back hoped for coming into the season. But Afful isn’t focused on the past, instead choosing to look ahead towards what is to come.
“Injuries suck but it’s also part of the game,” he said. “So thanks to the club; they took very good care of me. I was able to come back and then also enjoy some of the games, even though things were not going the right way. I mean, we did our best. But we, as professional players, we always want more and we think ahead and we think for the future.”
For Afful, the future means another year older. By the time the 2020 season starts, Afful will be 34 and likely the oldest player on the Crew’s roster. But to both the player and the coaches, age is just a number and not something either side considered much in negotiations.
“We never make assumptions based on anything other than what we really feel the player can do,” Porter said. “And we don’t just say, ‘Hey, he’s old. He can’t play,’ or ‘Hey, he’s young. He’s gonna run a lot.’ We just have to really make decisions based on what we know. And, as they always say, the best indicator of future performance is past evidence. And so Harry’s proven that he can do it. And he looks young. So forget age. He can do it and he’s proven to be one of the better right backs in the league. He fits our profile and we’re happy to have him back.”
While Afful still may have games left in his legs, the Black & Gold did have an eye toward the future in late July when the club signed Scottish Chris Cadden. The 23 year old went on loan for the remainder of the season but will join his new team for preseason in January.
In Cadden, the Crew has another right back who can get up and down the flanks and deliver crosses, registering four assists in 15 games with Oxford United. While Cadden will have to earn a spot in Columbus’ starting 11 in 2020, meaning displacing Afful, the Scot appears to be the future of the position for the Black & Gold.
“It depends,” Porter said when asked how Cadden’s arrival could impact Afful. “Obviously, we know what he can do. We wouldn’t have added him if we didn’t think that he could perform and obviously get the job done for us in that spot... We’ll see. It’ll be up to them and their performances and we’re real happy to have Harry signed and coming back, I’ll tell you that right now. And real happy to have Chris Cadden coming.”
For the Crew, the return of Afful means the team has a right back it believes can still get the job done at a high level. If Cadden comes in and performs well also, that just means depth at a position that was certainly needed after so many injuries in 2019.
From Afful’s perspective, re-signing with the Black & Gold means he gets to continue his career with a club and in a city that he and his family have fallen in love with.
“I believe me coming here, I did the right thing,” Afful said. “Of course back home before, we say coming to the MLS is about how you come into it. But when I came here, I saw a different picture. The people of Columbus accepted me. The fans, when I step on the pitch and I see the fans going crazy, that makes me want to give everything. So that is one thing. I put the fans on my heart and I make sure I go very hard.”