For a football fan whose favorite dishes are served on the menus of Europe’s biggest leagues, America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) isn’t quite my cup of tea.
The league’s not-so-straightforward, NBA-like format is hardly familiar, and this season has felt especially peculiar (as has been, in all honesty, the case around the world), but the Ghanaian in me hasn’t been able to resist the urge to keep an eye on it. Come Sunday, in fact, when the climactic MLS Cup final plays out in Columbus, Ohio, I’d give it all two eyes.
And why not?
One of the two finalists, the Columbus Crew, has three Ghanaians on its roster. One, Emmanuel Boateng, joined only last August, but the other two — Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah — are established figures with the Crew. Afful has been at the club longer, and this is his second final, but Mensah — inspired in no small part by the armband handed him earlier this year by head coach Caleb Porter — wields greater influence.
“I think he’s an unbelievable person, one of the best people you’ll ever meet; just a big heart — really good guy, really special leader,” Porter, obviously appreciative of Mensah’s leadership abilities, said earlier this week.
“He hasn’t seen his wife in 10 months and I couldn’t imagine being 10 months without my wife,” he added. “The fact that he goes home alone every day and comes to training and rolls the sleeves up… he’s just unbelievable. I joke with him that he’s going to be the president of Ghana one day. He has that type of quality.”
His country may not regard him as much of a leader — given that he was overlooked recently when the national team’s captaincy roles were being assigned — but getting back into the Black Stars fold itself shouldn’t be as tough as Mensah finds it these days.
He’s done enough over the years to earn the confidence of any Ghana trainer, impressing as one of the team’s most reliable — if not necessarily spectacular — players since breaking out as a member of the country’s history-making U-20 world champions in 2009.
On fresh evidence, though, it’s even harder to understand why Mensah hasn’t played for Ghana since last year’s Africa Cup of Nations, and has been especially overlooked thus far by current coach Charles Akonnor. Mensah’s continued omission — in the light of his consistency and brilliance at club level — is bewildering, not least because of Ghana’s obvious issues in defence and the recent recall of club mate Afful.
Mensah has been the Crew’s stand-out defender and performer this season, churning out displays that secured a place in the MLS Best XI. He has guided the Crew to their highest finish (3rd) in the Eastern Conference since 2015, beating New England Revolution to win the conference final on December 6, and setting up this weekend’s championship match with Western Conference/defending champions Seattle Sounders.
Sounders have been a formidable force in the MLS in recent years, reaching three of the last four finals, while the Crew have also been rocked by COVID-19 cases that rule out a couple of their best players. Still — ranked higher than their capital-based opponents — the Black & Gold would seek to maximize the advantage that comes with hosting the game at their MAPFRE Stadium, the first soccer-specific grounds built by an MLS team, in a bid to end an 11-year wait for major silverware.
And in 2020 — the league’s silver jubilee, and a year during which race has been a major talking point in American society — a black skipper lifting the MLS Cup, nearly two decades after that last happened, would be of immense significance. That he is Ghanaian should make the sight more enthralling, even if — on most other days — the MLS isn’t exactly spellbinding.