The 26-year-old Ghanaian center back will be recognizable to MLS fans largely because of his international pedigree. He started for Ghana in both the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, including the Black Stars’ 2-1 victory over the United States in 2010 and the USMNT’s 2-1 win in 2014.
He comes to MLS from Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian Premier League, and has played for French club Evian TG and Granada CF in Spain.
Mensah is just the fifth Designated Player in Crew SC history – following in the footsteps of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Andres Mendoza, new teammate Federico Higuain and Kei Kamara – and is the first non-attacker ever given the DP tag for Columbus.
In a conference call Monday, head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter said he’s “excited to see how [Mensah] translates” to a major role in Columbus.
“At 26 years of age, he’s played a very big role with the Ghanaian national team at center back in World Cups and African Cup of Nations, so he’s been playing a big role there,” Berhalter said. “The Russian league, his last stop, is a very difficult league … and he handled himself well. So we think he’s ready for another step, and that next step is playing a leadership role.”
But Berhalter is confident that the investment will be worth it for the prime of Mensah’s career.
“We identified Jonathan as a guy who could fit into our team and make an immediate impact in Major League Soccer,” he said. “We think his defending style is dominant and we think he’s going to give opposing forwards a very difficult time.”
Columbus has already lost Argentinian center back Gaston Sauro for the entirety of the 2017 season, and Berhalter suggested that Mensah will serve as his replacement, fitting the mold of a ball-winner to eliminate the susceptibility to counterattacks that Crew SC showed last season.
“There are many times when we’re aggressive, we’re in the opponents’ half. And we need, when that ball comes out for center backs, to be able to win the ball,” Berhalter said. “Gaston was excellent at that, and when he’s missing, we need someone to pick up that slack. It’s important that Jonathan is able to do that.”
While he isn’t known for his skills on the ball, a focus of Berhalter’s possession-oriented strategy, the Crew SC boss said Mensah has a “good baseline of technique” and that his training focus will be improving his ability with the ball at his feet.
At the beginning of the offseason, Columbus had just four defenders on their roster, including the injured Sauro. But after signing Homegrown center back Alex Crognale, trading for the rights to veteran Josh Williams, inking a deal with Finnish fullback Jukka Raitala and bringing Mensah into the fold, Berhalter believes he has a more stable back line than the one that gave up 58 goals in 2016.
“On paper, it’s looking much better,” Berhalter said. “On paper, we were able to compensate for the loss of Gaston for the year, and we’re comfortable where we are now. But the second side of it is playing together, and that may take some time.”