Harrison Afful tries to claim his throne with Columbus
COLUMBUS, Ohio --
The belief and the drive infused into that statement explained why Ghana right back Afful found himself in that position in the first place. He reached a stopping point in the middle of this year. The energetic fullback allowed his contract to expire with Tunisian side Espérance Sportive de Tunis at the end of June. After spending six years at the top of the same league with the same club, he knew he needed to return home to contemplate his future and pick his next destination.
Afful sifted through offers prompted by his experience at the highest levels of African club football and his 60 caps with the Black Stars. Several teams in Africa and the Middle East expressed interest, particularly after a proposed move to Al Wahda in the United Arab Emirates broke down in February. There were other suitors, too. The 29-year-old trained by himself and weighed his options.
Instead of pursuing one of those relatively straightforward paths, Afful chose to accept an offer from Crew SC instead. Columbus entered the summer transfer window with a gaping hole at right back after Hernan Grana returned to Argentina after a few months. Crew SC head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter picked up Afful on his radar as part of the club’s scouting process and swooped to complete the deal at the end of July.
“I knew I what I was coming here to do,” Afful said on Friday ahead of the MLS Cup date with Portland Timbers on Sunday. “I knew what the expectations were before I got here. I knew it was a big challenge for me, but I’m someone who likes challenges. When it comes my way, I just have to stay on my feet and show that I can deliver on the field.”
Afful figured out how to meet the demands quickly and make the best use of his abilities in unfamiliar territory. His particular skills -- the endeavor to push high up the field, the precision in his delivery from wide areas and the willingness to cover acres of ground to fulfill his duties -- dovetailed neatly with the considerable demands imposed on Crew SC fullbacks, while the Crew SC technical staff worked with him diligently to ensure the he boasted the fitness and the finer tactical points to perform at his best.
“What I’m most impressed with is the way he’s adapted,” Berhalter said in his pre-match press conference on Friday. “He’s fit seamlessly into this team. He’s adapted to this country without skipping a beat. And he’s a fantastic guy. We’re happy to be working with him.”
Crew SC played its part in the adjustment by tweaking its balance in defense to compensate for Afful’s desire to join the play. Columbus spent much of this season trying to ally its desire to commit numbers into the attacking half and its dominance in possession with the necessary solidity. The summer arrivals of Afful and rugged center back Gaston Sauro paved the way to a more resolute end to the campaign. There were adjustments made here and there -- Crew SC made some small fixes and urged the opposite fullback to adopt more conservative positions, according to captain Michael Parkhurst -- to ensure more cohesion off the ball.
Those measures took hold over the closing stages of the regular season, but they rose to prominence in the Eastern Conference final victory over New York Red Bulls. Afful and left back Waylon Francis sparkled in that series. Their work on the overlap in the first leg pinned the Red Bulls back and tempered the influence of Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam, while their positioning in the return match -- Afful in advanced spots to occupy Kemar Lawrence and provide Ethan Finlay with more operating room and Francis in a more measured posture to mitigate Sam -- illustrated the effectiveness of their work in tandem.
Both matches served as a testament to the application of Afful and his teammates. Crew SC made significant strides in a condensed period of time. There were changes made and steps taken. And the results reflect the desire to take that final step on Sunday.
Afful hopes to cap his first few months in the United States with yet another trophy. He knows the demands of these games well -- his CV includes CAF Champions League finals, several Cup of Nations matches and two World Cup appearances last year -- and understands how to perform in them. This is the sort of game where he wants to shine.
There are incentives at hand, too. Afful is sharing the field with Ghana teammate and Portland Timbers goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey. There are skeptics back home to impress in the wake of his decision to move here.
“Back in Ghana, there is a lot of talk that if you are coming to MLS, you are coming to retire,” Afful said. “That is the emotion behind all of this. But when I came here, I saw a different thing. It’s very competitive. It’s really nice to play here. For me, in some years, it’ll be one of the greatest leagues in the world.”
Those realities justify his decision to veer away from the expected course and try his luck in Columbus over these past few months. His career is in full swing once more. There is no stopping now. It is all about running full-tilt until that trophy is in hand and he lives up to his nickname once more.