By DAN KARELL
The Columbus Crew’s newest signing, Harrison Afful, may have never made it stateside had it not been for a chance encounter with one of his childhood heroes.
Playing for Tunisian club Espérance Sportive de Tunis in the CAF Confederations Cup, the African equivalent of UEFA’s Europa League, Afful had one of the games of his life, setting up two goals and scoring one of his own, in a 4-0 drubbing of Ghanaian side Hearts of Oak. In the return leg, the two sides drew, 1-1, but it was more than enough for Esperance to progress on aggregate to the next round of the competition.
Following the second-leg match, Afful was greeted in the team hotel by one of his childhood heroes, and the seeds to come to MLS were planted.
“He was the best player in that game,” Joe Addo, a former MLS centerback and Ghana National Team captain, told SBI Soccer of the first-leg match. “Immediately after the (return) game, I went to the hotel to see him and thank him for giving some of our boys experience and tell him how well he played.
“To my surprise, I was his hero growing up. He grew up watching me play for the national team. I was excited to meet him but he was excited to meet me.”
Addo currently serves as the corporate affairs manager with Hearts of Oak, a historically successful club in the Ghanaian capital of Accra that has recently fallen on hard times. It is also Addo’s boyhood club, and where he got his start before coming to the United States to play college soccer at George Mason and, later, in MLS in 1999.
Through his discussions with Afful last June, Addo discovered that Afful was looking to move on from Esperance, with an eye towards heading to a club in the Middle East.
“I said, ‘No, no, no. Don’t go to the Middle East,’” Addo said. “I said to him I hope he comes to MLS.”
Addo, who spent 1999-2001 with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and 2002-2003 with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, noted how he still remains in contact with current and former MLS coaches including Dom Kinnear, Frank Yallop, and Mike Petke.
In addition, Addo played with Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter in the Netherlands with Sparta Rotterdam, and after talking with Afful, Addo helped put the two in touch.
“As soon as I told him that he got interested,” Addo said. “He asked me if it would be good for his career and I explained to him that I think (MLS) would be best for his career.”
On July 30, the Crew made it official, announcing Afful’s signing with the club on a free transfer.
“I have to give all the credit to Joe Addo, former Black Stars defender,” Afful said in an interview on the Crew’s website. “He was the one who made the move.”
Addo described Afful as a smart, versatile player who should fit into Berhalter’s system of attacking full backs who bomb forward, effectively serving as a second winger or attacking midfielder.
“He is not the most muscular player, he’s not the biggest player on the field, but he’s one of the most intelligent players on the field,” Addo said of Afful. “He plays multiple positions. He’s so intelligent that he can play right back, he can play attacking midfielder, he’s a box-to-box midfield player. I think that’s what Gregg really admired, that a player of his caliber, Gregg can use him in different positions.
“They will love him (in Columbus). He’s a very disciplined player and a very hard working player.”
After missing out on Ghana’s first match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil against the U.S. Men’s National Team, Afful came into the lineup at right back in place of Daniel Opare and played well against the likes of Thomas Müller of Germany and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.
Afful supplied a great assist in Ghana’s wild 2-2 draw against Germany, sending a curling cross into the box to teammate Andre Ayew. However, Afful was partially at fault for Mario Götze’s second half goal by not tracking his run in the box.
Afful’s signing fills a need for the Crew, who had been searching for a replacement for Hernan Grana, an Argentine right back signed last January before leaving in May.
In Grana’s place, the Crew having been using Hector Jimenez, a converted right winger, and Chad Barson, a more defensive-minded player, but Berhalter has yet to find the desired results from the pair.
Afful has a chance to not only win a starting spot, and also to help give the Crew yet another attacking weapon that can also defend in one-on-one situations at a high level.
“I told Harrison that he’s going to feel like home there,” Addo said. “Every time he calls me he tells me it’s better than I told him.”