Age at MLS Cup: 30
Hometown: Prampram, Ghana
ALL COMPETITIONS IN 2020:
The Crew signed Mensah as a designated player in 2017, by which time he had already appeared in two World Cups for Ghana, including the Black Stars’ run to the quarterfinals in 2010 Mensah’s early performances in Columbus were uneven, especially given his DP status. However, his dedication to the city and club were obvious, and he soon blossomed into the most dominant centerback the Crew have seen since Chad Marshall’s heyday. 2020 was a landmark year for Mensah, who not not only captained the MLS Cup champions, but was also a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year and was named to the MLS Best XI squad. In one of the more touching moments of the season, Mensah received the news of his Best XI designation via a video link with his wife, Kafui, who had to remain in Ghana all season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Although lauded for his leadership and physical dominance on the backline, it was Mensah’s deft, first-time, instep layoff of a Lucas Zelarayan cross that set up Artur’s winning goal in the Eastern Conference Final. 2020 was just an all-around legendary season for a player who has become a beloved member of the Columbus community and who will forever have a place in Crew history the much-admired and respected captain of an MLS Cup championship team. And he played every minute of every game during the championship season. In many ways, Mensah’s journey in Columbus mirrors that of Crewville itself– on shaky ground in 2017, but with a bedrock core of solid intangibles and hard work that paved the way for a transcendent triumph in 2020. Jonathan Mensah has proven to be the right man at the right time for the right club.
THROUGH JOSH’S EYES
“Jona, man, there is just so much to say about him. What an incredible captain and a more incredible person off the field, which is hard to believe given some of the plays he makes on the field and the type of year he had. Other than Chad Marshall, he’s probably the most physically dominant player I’ve ever shared the field with as a teammate. He’s just an absolute beast. He works on his body constantly and he works on his craft constantly. I think we ultimately sums him up is he was apart from his wife for 11 months and he still did all that. I just have so much respect for that. I can’t imagine those nights at home, and as the days stretch on through the COVID period, and being in our own personal bubble with the world shut down. And then on top of all that, having to lead a team, to take the reins this year and show up every day with a smile on his face and to always have a little witty joke for everyone. He’s so intelligent. He knows five languages! So to me, you could write a book just on Jona. I admire that guy so much. He’s an incredible human and it’s an honor to share the field alongside him.
“Half of the time, it’s him and the other Ghanaians yelling at each other, so it’s in another language and I can’t understand them, but it’s contagious. Those guys are constantly joking with each other and are always in a good mood. I always talk to Jona about LeBron and the NBA. That’s our morning routine. He’s a LeBron fan, so we always go there and just admire him. We’ll watch highlights.
“He also does this thing with Scotty, our chef. Jona will come in and yell ‘GOOD MORNING’ to Scotty super loud, and everybody’s like, ‘Come on man, I just want to have a peaceful breakfast.’ He would just yell it super loud and we would give him crap for that, but you just can’t stay mad at the guy. He’s a super likeable guy. Just an incredible human.
“In spending 11 years at the professional level in this sport, and knowing the kind of trajectory that goes on with players, and even from criticizing myself when I was a younger player, the idea for every player is to continue to grow and become a better player. In five years, Jona isn’t going to be able to do what he’s doing now physically, but he’s starting to understand the game at a different level. In terms of physical tools, he’s always been insanely blessed in that way, so the physical tools were never an issue. He would do things that are incredible to watch. He’s got so much power and jumping ability and athleticism that it always took your breath away. He would do things physically where we would all look around and it was like, ‘What the hell did we just watch right there?’ But then to watch him study the game and want to get better, I think Gregg had a big part in that, and then Caleb coming in here allowed him to take what he’d learned from Gregg and gave him the captaincy and took the reins off. He has accepted that role in such an amazing way. He’s grown into this leader that wasn’t necessarily there before. We’ve watched him grab ahold of that thing and he literally keeps rising. It’s been awesome to watch and awesome to be a part of.
“So I think maybe he had a rough start when he got to Columbus. Every player has been there. I’ve never had to travel halfway around the world to play. I can’t imagine what that’s like when you come into a new situation. There are different pressures, and some things go your way and some don’t. But the ability to bounce back and stay at it is a testament to his character. After being around him for years now, I am not at all surprised at what I’m seeing. He’s a consummate professional and is always wanting to get better. What we all watched in 2020 is a product of that.
“I think you could tell by the video of us watching his wife tell him he made MLS Best XI what type of respect everybody has for him and how likeable he is because it felt like we were all winning it because we were so happy for him.”
“I don’t think anybody couldn’t not smile in that moment or feel for him because I couldn’t imagine being in that situation. I thought this year was tough and I was living with my girlfriend at the time and had somebody to talk to. And my parents were just a couple hours away. And I was living in my home state that I grew up in. So whenever I would feel a little down and wonder when all of this was going to end, I would think of someone like Jona, where his wife is half a world away. And to see his reaction, that was the best part. I’m glad we got that on camera. You could tell it was some comfort and some normalcy in a weird year. To see her and hear her voice in that moment made it so special for him. And it was special because he earned that. He earned everything and more. All the accolades and all the praise he got this year, he’s one guy where you can say, ‘Man, that guy went through a lot this year and came out better on the other side.’
“That moment was a total surprise for all of us. We knew he was a finalist for Defender of the Year, but we didn’t know he made Best XI. We were all talking about the Defender of the Year finalists, and I know we’re biased, but I thought he flat out earned Defender of the Year. But to me, it says something about being Best XI. I thought he was an absolute beast this year.
“There’s a moment in MLS Cup that I haven’t told anybody until now, and it’s a moment I will always remember involving Jona. We had just scored the third goal and there was a play with him and Will Bruin. Will Bruin had the ball and he’s just a big athletic guy who uses his body so well. If he’s in possession, he’s one of those guys where you don’t really look to win it. You just look to force him backwards because you’re not going to outmuscle him. Well, at least that’s what I thought, so let me put it this way: I’m not looking to outmuscle him. I’m just looking to force him backwards. So anyway, it was kind of a 60-40 ball in Will’s favor and Jona just came through and bodied him out the way, took the ball, and went to clear it and it got deflected out for a throw-in.”
[NOTE: The video clip should start at 2:22:23, but it insists on starting a few seconds earlier for some reason so you catch some brief commentary about the third goal. Anyway, it’s not necessarily eye-popping from afar, so I love that Josh tells the field-level story of this little game-within-the-game moment.]
“I remember Jona just yelling real loud, celebrating the play. It was a beastly play. I remember thinking, ‘Damn, he hit him hard.’ So then Will turned around and looked at me, and I had this ‘wow’ look on my face, and I remember Will saying, ‘God, that’s a big boy.’ And I was thinking, ‘Yes. Yes he is, because you’re a big boy!’ What I watched in that play was straight up determination. To me, that’s just Jona in a nutshell. When he needs to be physically dominant, he’s got that in his bag. He can be crafty and his decision-making and his confidence on the ball skyrocketed this year, but when he needs that strength, he can do that. I mean, when you’re doing that to Will Bruin, that’s next-level strength.”
[NOTE: To see a clickable list of earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE.]
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