Feature: The Africans lighting MLS up

In recent years Major League Soccer has turned into one of the football’s more diverse leagues, with this season’s rosters featuring players from 82 countries. 

There are currently 38 African players in the league, representing 20 different African nations. 13 of the 38 (nearly 1/3) players hail from Ghana

From up-and-coming talents to seasoned veterans, there are quite a few exciting Africans to watch out for in American soccer.

Here are some of the Africans that are lighting MLS up.

Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew – Ghana)

It’s hard to recognize the Africans standing out this season without starting with Jonathan Mensah. To lay it out simply, Mensah has been one of the league’s best centre-backs this season, if not best player period. Additionally, he is captaining the league leaders Columbus Crew. 

Since coming to America from Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala in 2017, Mensah has always been one of the first names on the team sheet at centre-back. First under the management of current US National Team coach Gregg Berhalter and now under Caleb Porter. It would’ve been hard to predict that a player who has plied his trade in the first divisions in Ghana, South Africa, Spain, and France would reach new levels of success in the United States.

Perhaps it is the culture at Crew that allows Africans to thrive. Let’s not forget his compatriot Harrison Afful has established as one of the league’s premier right-backs over the past few seasons.

Veteran MLS striker and current pundit Charlie Davies has tipped the 30-year-old Ghanaian to win the league’s most valuable player award.

“Jonathan Mensah, for me, has been the MVP this year. Just being this relentless, smart, tactical defensive player who you can rely on, who’s consistent and everyone who you can see vibes off of. This is a tremendous, talented center back in this league that we’re not really accustomed to seeing, a center back with his capabilities and how he’s kind of set the tone for Columbus Crew.”

While Mensah’s individual performances have been tremendous, his leadership has been key to Columbus’ success this season. Since the resumption of the league following the MLS is Back Tournament, Mensah and the Crew have conceded only four goals in eight games!

 

Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC – Nigeria)

20-year-old Michigan born forward Ayo Jesus-Sultan-Akinola Ogundimu burst onto the scene at the MLS is Back tournament, scoring five goals in two games.

Eligble for the United States, Canada, and Nigeria, the striker dazzled with his pace and composure before a hamstring injury ruled him out for over a month. It has taken some time for him to reenter the squad, in part due to the presence of iconic US National Team striker Jozy Altidore, but Akinola returned and scored his sixth of the season against DC United.

Although MLS has prided itself in playing the youth, this is often not the case when it comes to the forward positions. To put it into perspective, Akinola (20) has six goals this season. No other player under the age of 22 has scored more than 3 times in 2020.

Latif Blessing (LAFC – Ghana)

Latif Blessing is a unique player. Standing at 1.65 m, the rapid Ghanaian gives former Egypt National Team head coach and current LAFC boss Bob Bradley a lot of options when picking his sides. Able to play anywhere across the front line, Blessing has mainly started in the central attacking midfield position. Bradley has switched things up recently however, implementing the former Liberty Professionals FC and Sporting Kansas City man as a right-back. 

We’ve seen Blessing play across the field before, last season he appeared as a defensive-midfielder to complement his appearances as an attacking mid. Blessing scored 11 times and assisted 11 goals in the past two seasons combined, adding an extra dimension to Kansas City’s attack before being acquired by expansion side Los Angeles FC.

The 23-year-old has been a bright spot for an LAFC side who are perhaps suffering a bit of a hangover after reaching the MLS playoffs semi-finals last season, languishing in 6th place in the Western conference. 

Given his attacking prowess Blessing arguably provides the most going forward out of all MLS fullbacks, but his defensive capabilities have shown that Bradley might be right to switch the Ghanaian from a #10 to a wing-back.