OBETZ, Ohio – In the waning moments of their last two Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoff games, an unlikely hero has emerged for Columbus Crew SC.
When they’ve needed a goal the most – to advance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Montreal Impact and for a crucial 2-0 scoreline against the New York Red Bulls in the Leg 1 of the conference championship – Cedrick Mabwati has been the man to come off the bench and change the game for Columbus.
Against Montreal, his quick feet and perfect cross provided the ball that Kei Kamara would head past Evan Bush for the series-winner in the extra-time Leg 2 thriller. Against New York last weekend, his weaving dribble through four defenders forced a save from Luis Robles that would fall directly to Kamara’s feet for the 85th-minute goal.
And while Cedrick has earned only one start this season heading into Sunday's deciding leg at Red Bull Arena (7:30 pm ET; FS1, FOX Deportes, FOX Sports GO, MLS LIVE), his importance is not lost on his teammates and coaches.
“The only reason why we’re in this position that we’re in is because of Cedrick,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “He’s done a fantastic job.”
Columbus bought Cedrick from Spanish club Osasuna in January, but he remained with the team on loan through the end of their season, not debuting for Crew SC until July 25.
Berhalter said Cedrick’s talent was obvious, but the timing of his arrival was difficult.
“When you bring guys in midseason, it’s more difficult to integrate them,” Berhalter said. “You don’t have the preseason time to get them up to speed with some of the tactical elements and, from a fitness standpoint, they could possibly be behind. Having said that, we think he can still be very effective, and we think he can still help the team, and he’s proven he can.”
Berhalter said Cedrick’s skillset is perfect for the role.
“He’s a very good dribbler, a very good one-on-one dribbler,” Berhalter said. “He’s got a very good first touch of the ball, and he can create on his own. We knew he has that ability, and it’s fun to see. We see it in training every day, and it’s fun for the fans to get to see how explosive he is and how good of a dribbler he is.”
And while the winger says he “would love to start,” he says if his role is off the bench, “then I’m happy with it.”
“Any player, once he comes off the bench to support his team, it takes a little bit to get used to the game,” he said through a team translator. “But the other side of it is changing the rhythm of the game. That’s what it is, changing the rhythm of the game and being able to do what the coach wants and having fun with it. I go in with the mentality that I know my role, I know what I’m going to do and I try to have fun with it.”
Cedrick’s on-field play isn’t the only fun part about his story. His nearly 15,000 Instagram followers are provided with a frequent look at his off-field personality.
Whether he’s taking photos in a new leather jacket in front of his Chevrolet Camaro, posing with his teammates or bobbing his head to his favorite tunes, the winger’s social media presence is nearly as entertaining as his play.
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“I just put up pictures or songs and say stuff; it’s just for fun,” Cedrick said of his social media strategy. “I find it fun, and I’m glad people find it fun and interesting. That’s what it’s about.”
One of the highlights of Cedrick’s Instagram feed, of him posing behind a painted portrait of him holding a bronze medal in front of a Congolese flag, shows just the impact he has on his fans. The portrait, painted by a fan, is easily more than half the size of the 5-foot-6 Cedrick and represents Congo’s bronze medal in the 2015 African Cup of Nations.
“On the last trip when I went to play with Congo, I saw a fan at the hotel,” Cedrick explained. “He said, ‘Hey, this is a gift for you.’ I received it with open arms, and I loved it.
“There have been posters, there have been bracelets and this and that. There’s even been a cardboard cutout of a picture of me hugging fans.”
It’s been easy for Cedrick to bring that same level of personality to Columbus, where he immediately fit in with the team’s African contingent – Kamara, Tony Tchani, Harrison Afful and Cedrick all come from the continent – and Spanish speakers before fully integrating into the team.
In the midst of his first MLS Cup run after his most successful season with the Congo national team, Cedrick’s career is on the uptick. But he’s not thinking about that just yet.
“I’m a guy that thinks in the now, not really in the future,” he said. “I have a contract here in Columbus, and I’m happy here, so that means I want to be here. It’s all about playing. Any player wants to play, and right now I’m not thinking about the future. I’m thinking about now, the present, and I’m happy.”
Berhalter, however, obviously has high hopes for Cedrick’s future.
“We want to keep developing him, keep helping him to improve,” Berhalter said. “With all of these guys, we don’t want to put any limits on them, any type of barriers. He can go as far as he wants to go, and we’re going to help him get there.”