In 2015, the Columbus Crew added a defender from an unlikely place. The Ghana-born Harrison Afful, in his sixth year playing in Tunisia, signed with Columbus. On Friday, the former Crew fullback signed with Major League Soccer expansion side Charlotte FC as a free agent.
Afful’s signing wasn’t all that unlikely, considering he represented Ghana in the 2014 World Cup alongside future Crew center back Jonathan Mensah. What followed his signing was seven seasons of service to club and city alike.
From his first season with the team, then-head coach Gregg Berhalter saw the impact. Afful made his first start for Columbus in his first appearance on Aug. 19, 2015. He continued that trend by starting every remaining match of the season, including the ill-fated 2015 MLS Cup Final 2-1 defeat to now-Crew head coach Caleb Porter’s former Portland Timbers.
Afful followed that trajectory for the next six years. There wasn’t a season where Afful didn’t start at least 20 matches for the Black & Gold, even as the team changed owners and coaches. On the field, Afful brought a style of play that featured incredible pace. As the years went on and new, younger, fullbacks were brought onto the team, they couldn’t match the speed and ability of Afful.
It wasn’t just his speed on the field, but his ability to create chances. In his seven seasons, Afful contributed 18 regular season assists and two in 17 MLS Cup playoff matches. If MLS went the way of professional hockey, the number of secondary assists would be much higher. Afful had the ability to separate from defenders and find the offensive half of the field, getting the ball in and around the 18-yard box for scoring opportunities.
In the goal column, Afful contributed seven over his time with Columbus. None bigger than in the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs. On Halloween, two weeks after soccer writer Grant Wahl’s infamous Crew relocation tweet, Afful scored his only playoff goal against New York City FC.
Although Columbus was up 3-1 in the contest, back when MLS did two-match aggregate playoff matches, Afful received the ball in the box and made a highlight-reel play. The Ghanaian took the ball and dribbled through four New York City players before burying the ball into the bottom left-hand corner. At the first home match since it was announced that Anthony Precourt planned to take the club to Austin, Texas, Afful’s legendary goal was the icing on the cake of a 4-1 victory.
Statistically, 2018 was the best year for Afful in a Crew uniform. The defender contributed two goals and seven assists in all competitions. The next year, Afful fought through injuries but still played 22 matches in Porter’s first year as Columbus’ head coach. In 2020, Afful bounced back.
Even through the global COVID-19 pandemic, Afful started 26 matches for the Black & Gold, including the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 12, 2020. Afful had one assist in that game, and it was a big one. In the 25th minute, Afful sent a cross into the box, reaching midfielder Lucas Zelarayan for the game-winning goal of what turned into a 3-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders.
In 2021, Afful continued his trend of racking up minutes on the field, but towards the end of the season that changed. On Aug. 23, Columbus signed former Ligue 1 fullback Steven Moreira. His addition moved Afful to an off-the-bench role. At the end of the season, Columbus didn’t re-sign Afful, focusing instead on retaining the services of fullback Milton Valenzuela to play alongside Moreira.
Afful labels himself online as “King Harrison,” which would come off poorly for most people. But with Afful, it fit. In his time with the Crew, Afful was a favorite within supporters circles. Part of the reason it worked was his relationship with fans off the field.
Now Afful will wear the royal blue of Charlotte FC. Alongside him at the back position are Jaylin Lindsey and Joseph Mora. Former D.C. United left back Mora joined Charlotte as the third pick of Tuesday’s MLS Expansion Draft.
Lindsey is a Homegrown right back who played in 2021 for Sporting Kansas City. Charlotte brought in Lindsey in exchange for $100,000 in General Allocation Money and he will likely be the competition for Afful.
It’s unknown at this stage of the team’s construction to know anyone’s spot as a starter. After all, Afful is only Charlotte’s 15th player. It’s certain though that Afful, who turns 36 during the 2022 season, now has the chance to prove that he still deserves a starting spot in MLS. He also brings one important piece to a new team.
“Across his stellar career, Harrison has been part of eight championships, both here in Major League Soccer and in Africa,” Charlotte FC sporting director Zoran Krneta said in the statement announcing the signing, “and everyone at the club will be able to lean on his leadership.”
The Crew takes on Charlotte twice during the 2022 MLS regular season. Supporters can see Afful at Lower.Com Field on June 18. On July 30, the Black & Gold travel to Charlotte for their first league match at Bank of America Stadium in the Queen City.