COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ghanaian community in Columbus has been strong for years, with around 10,000 immigrants and expatriates calling the city home.
But thanks four of them in particular, Cowtown is becoming significantly more well-known 9,000 miles away.
When defender Harrison Afful joined Columbus Crew SC in 2015, he immediately became the highest-profile Ghanaian to play in Columbus. The club had Dominic Oduro and Kingsley Baiden on their roster in previous years, but Afful was a well-known regular for the national team and a popular figure among Ghanaian soccer fans around the world.
So when the team announced the signing of Designated Player and Ghanaian national-team regular Jonathan Mensah in January, buzz about a Black Stars partnership between Mensah and Afful began in earnest.
A month later, the Ghanaian contingent in Columbus doubled. The team drafted defender Lalas Abubakar with their top Superdraft pick, and added midfielder Mohammed Abu as a special discovery player.
Even by the time Abubakar was drafted, the rookie said Columbus had turned MLS into the talk of Ghana.
“My friends told me all the social media in Ghana was talking about MLS,” he said with a laugh. “Then Abu got signed, and they [said] all the social media in Ghana is going crazy about a team having four Ghanaians. So I think MLS has had a lot of recognition in Ghana.”
Mensah said he’s seen the spike in interest as well.
The defender said when he and Afful join up with their national team and visit back home, they’re often asked about the league and Crew SC.
“We’ve got followers, we’ve got fans, we’ve got family and they’re now following Columbus because we’re here,” he said. “They don’t really know where it is, but they’re getting to know where it is now. It’s, ‘Oh, oh, Columbus! That’s where the guys play!’ So they’re doing research about it and finding out where we play. It’s good.”
Crew SC’s Ghanaian quartet find themselves in Columbus at different stages of their careers.
Afful, 30, is the established veteran for club and country, and has said he’s thrilled with life in Columbus. Mensah, 26, is perhaps the most well-known and talented member of the group, but is hoping to rebound from a disappointing spell in Russia. Abu was talented enough to sign for Manchester City as a 19-year-old, but hasn’t broken through. And for 22-year-old Abubakar, the situation is a bit unreal.
The rookie said he knew of all three of his countrymen before they were united in Columbus, and is especially excited to be their teammate.
“I grew up watching them on the national team, so when I had the opportunity to play with them I was really happy,” he said. “Now that we came and we’ve come together, we really connect. We do everything and have fun all the time. It’s really nice.”
Away from training, the group can often be found rotating between each other’s houses and local African restaurants – though they’re still trying to scope out the best ones.
And while Mensah has only been in town for a few months, he’s already begun to see the influence the thousands of Ghanaian transplants have had on the city.
“There are a lot of Ghanaian communities in Columbus, so it’s very good to hear the language you speak back home and see the culture around here,” he said. “We’re far from home, but you still see a few things around here, so it’s very interesting.”
On the field, Afful said it’s provided extra motivation for him – having Ghanaians around to compete and keep him honest makes for a nice boost in training.
“It keeps me going,” he said.
All four players emphasized that they’re not a clique – they’re part of a team. And for Afful and Mensah, being leaders for the club means that they need to reach the entire roster, not just those who were born in Ghana.
“It’s not just for Lalas or Abu, but everyone on the Crew SC team,” Afful said. “We are a team; we are a family. When we are here, we are one.”