If you spend any time at all on Twitter these days, it’s very likely you’ve stumbled on a How it started vs. How it’s going post. If not, that’s basically a post in which people show two pictures from different times in their lives to illustrate how things changed for the better in a specific aspect.
Columbus Crew captain Jonathan Mensah could have made a post of his own as after dealing with some questions and criticism following his arrival at the club in 2017. However, the 30-year-old center-back is having a Major League Soccer Defender of the Year season in 2020 and has been rewarded for that with a contract extension that will keep him in Ohio for at least a few more years.
“It feels great to be wanted by the club for a couple more years,” Jonathan said in a Zoom media conference following the announcement. “I’m grateful that they had confidence in me from day one and that they still do. My mentality is always to do my job and do it well. If you’re going to a new league, you need to bring something they don’t have so they want you more and love you more. That’s what I’ve done since day one and I’m grateful that the response has been real.”
At the time he arrived, Jonathan’s signing seemed like a home run for the Crew. With the departure of former captain Michael Parkhurst at the end of the 2016 season, the Black & Gold were on the market for a new defender and consensus among fans was that the club couldn’t have done any better than getting a 26-year-old physically imposing Ghanaian international with two World Cups to his name and playing experience in some of the top European leagues under his belt.
The personal side of the signing also indicated a great addition. Other than being known for his charity work in his native Ghana with the Jonathan Mensah Foundation, the defender left a powerful impression on the Crew’s decision-makers at the time, head coach Gregg Berhalter, who was excited about his personality and leadership skills after a call, and head of player recruitment Ricardo Moreira, who’s now with Orlando City SC. Add to the mix a strong recommendation from fellow Ghanaian international Harrison Afful and transfer became a no-brainer.
“Harrison suggested my name to Gregg and we spoke about me coming here,” Jonathan recalled. “I remember that when Gregg called me, we were in a training camp with Ghana for the African Cup of Nations. I used to watch MLS because of Harrison and the other Ghanaians and it wasn’t difficult to blend in because of the way I was welcomed by the club and my teammates.”
Jonathan’s first moments as a Crew player, however, didn’t seem to indicate his adjustment to the league was that smooth. One of the few defenders to be signed as Designated Players in MLS at the time and considered the team’s biggest offseason move that year, the Ghanaian struggled to make a strong impact in the team’s defensive system and made repeated mistakes that led to opponent goals. Among his main difficulties were consistency and the ability to play out of the back, so needed in Berhalter’s system.
His performance in a 2-0 home loss to Atlanta United in July of his debut year in which he failed to clear a long pass on the first goal and lost an aerial battle on the second raised some serious questions if the Crew had indeed gotten the right guy.
From that point on, Jonathan started his slow and steady recovery with the Crew as his confidence improved. The Ghanaian, who had missed part of the preseason due to the African Cup of Nations, ended that season playing much better than he started it and followed it up with a much-improved campaign in 2018, when he was awarded as the Crew’s Defender of the Year for the first time, dissipating the doubts that still remained about his skills.
In 2019, the first season with Caleb Porter at the helm, Jonathan progressed even further, even if it was the only season since his arrival in which the Black & Gold missed the playoffs. The center back was very solid, to many, the team’s best player on the campaign, and was Columbus’ Defender of the Year for a second straight time.
His strong personality, large experience and hard work on the field earned him extra responsibilities in 2020. Following Wil Trapp’s departure, the Ghanaian was picked by Porter as the new team captain.
His response couldn’t have been better. Jonathan is the only player to appear in each of the 1,620 minutes the Crew played in the season and is leading the team’s defense, which is the best in the league with 15 goals conceded in 18 matches. He has put on some strong performances that made him one of the favorites to claim the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award and even put his name in the MVP conversation earlier in the season.
“We feel like we have one of if not the best center back in the league here and he’s performed really well,” Porter said about the contract extension. “He’s our captain, he’s great to work with, he’s an unbelievable guy and a great leader. We’re really excited to have him here for the next several years.”
One of the curious aspects of Jonathan’s strong improvement over the years with the Crew is that it doesn’t show in numbers. Except for blocks per game (1.3) and passing accuracy (87.4 percent) averages, which are slightly higher than in previous seasons, the Ghanaian is not having a career year in any other important statistical aspect of a defender’s game for the Black & Gold.
The biggest difference, maybe, is that armband. A vocal leader, Jonathan has excelled in supporting his teammates and getting the best out of them, as midfielder Artur, who joined the Crew at the same time the Ghanaian, observed.
“He’s doing an amazing job and it’s great to be playing with him all these years and seeing him getting better every year,” the Brazilian remarked. “He’s a complete defender. He’s very good in the air, he’s a strong tackler, he’s fast and he’s good with the ball. The mix of all of that and his experience and his personality, being always there for his teammates, it’s what sets him apart as someone’s who’s not only a good player but someone who makes the team better. He leads by example because of the way he works, but also with words.”
With the new contract made official, Crew fans will be able to see more of Jonathan and his game for at least the next couple of years. And, of course, also to enjoy his fantastic personality off the field.
“I’ve got nothing but love from the Columbus community, my team and everyone I got to meet here,” he added. “So I’ll just continue spreading love, because it’s the only thing I’ve got from everyone here and I need to give that back.”