OBETZ, Ohio – For Jonathan Mensah, 2017 hasn’t been easy.
Columbus Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter signed the Ghanaian in the offseason, dubbing him the solution to the team's defensive woes. Berhalter said he expected Mensah to dominate and make an immediate impact.
But the defender marked the beginning of his season with a string of personal errors, and for long stretches of the year, it seemed he wouldn’t pan out in Columbus.
But as the club approached the playoffs, Mensah and his center back partner Josh Williams righted the ship. Suddenly, Columbus became stouter defensively, and the former even added some set-piece firepower. Together, the pair proved a major reason for Crew SC's late-season surge.
“I think he’s come a long way,” Berhalter said of Mensah. “I think it’s difficult for center backs to adapt to this league; I’ve been on record saying that before. And he’s done well. He’s starting to figure out what this league is about and he’s put himself in a position to compete every game.”
Mensah admitted that the beginning of the season “wasn’t great,” and said that his adjustment period lasted longer than he expected.
“Sometimes you can go into a league and just adjust and adapt very fast, but then go to other leagues and find it difficult,” he said. “It was very tough from the beginning. But I’ve started to figure out the referees, the league, the opponent and it was good afterward.”
Berhalter agreed that as Mensah goes, so does the team. He said, especially in his system, consistency in the back is crucial.
“Center backs are important to give the team stability, so when you have a center back who’s playing well, it gives you that,” Berhalter said. “You see when he performs well and Josh performs well, the team is playing really well.”
Mensah's learning curve may have been steep, but he said the extra work and training is “paying off,” and said he’s enjoying his first playoff experience.
“It’s been hard work,” he said. “That hard work can’t pay off right away; it’s a process. We’ve been working very hard, and it’s good that it’s happening at the end of the season entering the playoffs. It’s great to pick up from where we started.”
If Columbus are going to continue their Cinderella run in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, Mensah will be a big part of their success. And Berhalter is very aware that he’ll need his marquee defender if his club has a chance to take down the overwhelming regular season champion, Toronto FC, in the Eastern Conference Championship.
“He’s a big part of why we’re playing where we are right now,” Berhalter said.