OBETZ, Ohio – Within the well-documented context of soccer observers’ tendency to under-value fullbacks, Harrison Afful may be one of the most underrated of the bunch.
The Columbus Crew SC fullback has consistently played at a high level since his midseason acquisition in 2015, which helped propel Columbus toward hosting an MLS Cup final.
This season, Afful has been as present as ever, appearing in all but one game for Columbus and notching five assists, good for second-most among MLS defenders. But for those who know him well, he still isn’t getting the credit he deserves.
“He’s one of the most underrated right backs in the league,” teammate Jonathan Mensah said. “At minimum, I think he should have been called into one MLS All-Star Game. But we aren’t the guys who make that choice.”
Of his three and a half seasons in Columbus, 2017 wasn’t Afful’s best. He tallied just one assist and no goals, and spent much of the year out of his “rhythm” due to small, nagging hamstring and ankle injuries.
Heading into this season, he said he approached the season wanting to make up for the down year, and now makes a conscious effort to not take his health for granted.
“Last year, I had a lot of issues,” he said. “So coming into this year, I was mentally and physically prepared to go all-out. So that’s what’s keeping me going, and I don’t want to look back at all.”
Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said that commitment has shown itself on the field.
“I think Harry’s been excellent,” he said. “We’ve seen the progression of Harrison Afful in our time here. He does things every game that, as a coach, surprise you. He’s just that good. And I think this year, he’s been the most consistent.”
But Afful doesn’t just surprise people in games. The Ghanaian has built a reputation for reminding everyone of his skills by doing “things that you wouldn’t think a normal right back could do,” according to Mensah.
“He does it and we’re like, ‘Whoa,’” Mensah said. “I play with him in the national team and it’s the same. He comes into training and does unbelievable things. I just don’t know how he does it. He consistently does it all the time.
“He’s just special.”
Mensah and teammates Mohammed Abu, Lalas Abubakar and Edward Opoku, all born in Ghana, have a particular fondness for Afful because he started the Ghanaian pipeline to Columbus. Mensah has spoken regularly about how important Afful’s opinion was to both he and Berhalter when he was considering signing for Crew SC, and said he won’t forget it.
“It all started with [Afful] and what he came and did for this team. He came in 2015 and helped the team get to the MLS Cup final,” Mensah said. “So whatever he did for the team, that was why [Berhalter] also had trust in his judgment. So what he did for this team kind of paved the way for us. We don’t take that for granted.”
At 32, some players would begin slowing down or changing their game. But Afful said he’s training and working harder than ever, and the fullback shows no signs of slowing down.
Berhalter said he thinks Afful knowing how “valuable” he is to Columbus gives him energy, and the fullback said he’s just trying to take his coach’s advice about maintaining his body and his competitive side.
Hopefully, he said, he won’t begin a decline anytime soon.
“Gregg keeps telling me that at this age you have to do everything very well as a professional – gym stuff, everything,” he said. “I listen a lot, and I think that’s what’s keeping me [young]. I don’t want to think about my age. I want to play for a very long time – as long as I’m good.”