“He wants us to play with joy” | Mensah hails Porter’s ability to bring out the best

1_27_24 Jonathan Mensah and Caleb Porter

BRADENTON, Florida – Defender Jonathan Mensah asserts there was ‘no hesitation’ in his decision to join the New England Revolution, especially with the chance to reunite with former boss Caleb Porter.

The former Columbus Crew skipper, who lifted the MLS Cup and Campeones Cup under the head coach’s stewardship during a six-year stint in Ohio, followed in Porter’s footsteps in making the move to Foxborough, penning a one-year deal with the option to extend.

Playing every minute of the Crew’s 2020 title-winning success to earn MLS Best XI recognition (and a third successive Club Defender of the Year award), the center back revealed Porter unlocked new levels to his individual game, including the inspirational leadership qualities of a captain. Now having reestablished their connection in Revs colors, Mensah is excited to witness New England’s revolution under the 48-year-old’s direction, eager to play his own part in helping the club to achieve its potential.

“They’ve always been a good team from my time playing against them,” he said. “They’ve got a good group of players, a good team, a good foundation, so I didn’t even hesitate when the call came. I’m glad to be here.

“There is a time for everything. I believe it was the right moment for me to join the team, and help the team progress. We always know that taking on a new club, or a new home will always be a different challenge, but a good one. Challenges come our way to strengthen us, to make us better.

“I’ve known Caleb and his assistant coaches [for a long time], and it’s always great working with them. Obviously, being on another team is going to be another challenge for us, but we can face it head-on. It’s been great so far, working with him in previous years. He’s a winner, he’s a competitor – he’s always going to win. He will always do his best to instill that into his team, and his players.

“For the past few weeks that he’s been working with the team, we all see that in him, and we’re looking to emulate that and show it in games. All the training and all the preparation is to go out there and win – play beautiful football but win games.

“[As a man-manager] he’s incredible. He always makes sure that he gets us individually in his office – talks to you, lets you know what he sees in you, and what he sees you can to do help the team; what you can do to improve individually and collectively. Also, as a human being, whenever you need him, he’s always willing to assist wherever he can.

“It always goes a long way because being a good footballer is one thing, but being a good human being is another thing. Having a coach who is like a father figure to us is very important. As time goes on, we are going to see the type of man he is – when it’s time to work, it’s time to work, but at the same time, he also gives us room to make mistakes, to keep learning and improving.

“He will always tell you to do your job, be that leader, whether it’s you leading from the front, or from the back, leading from the bench, leading from the stands – wherever it may be, make sure you do the best, give it everything you’ve got – and we will live with the results. Even though we are playing for the results, if you’re not doing your best, the results don’t matter.

“He is the type that will let you know that you have got something in you that you don’t even know – I was never the captain of any team, but he made me the captain [at Columbus]. He said: ‘Jona, you can do more than you’ve always done, so go out there and lead by example. If someone isn’t doing something, pull them to the side, let them know that they can do better.’ He will show you that: ‘This is what you have done, but this is what you can do when you change these little things.’

“He’s the type that will take you to pay attention to all of the little details, and that is something I’ve really taken and learned from him. I’m not the type that will be talking a lot, but he said to me: ‘Jona, whichever way you can lead a team, do it.’

“Sometimes, you know what you can do, but he’s like: ‘Okay, I know you can do this, as well’ – whether it’s helping the young guys to improve their game, just talking to them. Sometimes, say someone is playing in front of me, they can’t see what’s happening behind them, so that little voice, that communication can make a big difference. That is something he taught me: to be a little bit more vocal, and back it up with my play, so learning that from him has really helped my game.

“He’s always going to be behind us, regardless of what happens, and that’s what we all need – whatever the results may be, we need to stick together. I believe the statement he made [‘inside every player is a little boy who loves soccer’] is very true, because you can go on the field, and be so rigid and be naïve – just go out there and have fun, like he said.

“Kids run around the house with a soccer ball, kicking it, breaking a few things in the house – mom and dad might not be happy with that, but the kids are having fun! He wants us to have that sense of joy in just having fun on the field – don’t be naïve, don’t be timid, don’t be pressured. ‘Pressure’ is people that don’t have food to eat, or somewhere to sleep, but we are fortunate enough to be making great lives from what we do, so he wants us to go out there, play with joy and have a lot of fun.”

For Mensah, Porter’s exceptional man-management was most evident and instrumental during the extremely challenging period of the global pandemic in 2020.

With every aspect of life impacted, it was a testing time across the world with the risk to health taking its toll mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.

The welcome return of sport (albeit with the notable absence of fans in attendance) brought much-needed joy, but continued to pose difficult moments. Despite the struggles, Porter guided Columbus to MLS Cup glory – his leadership a key component to the Crew’s success from start to flourishing finish, as Mensah recalled.

“During the COVID-19 year, it was very difficult,” the defender explained. “It got to a point where a few of our top players had COVID, and were unable to be with the team, but [Porter] called the Leadership Council and spoke to us – told us to talk to the young guys; tell them that they need to be ready because they were going to be playing.

“That was the situation. For the MLS Cup Final, we had two big stars out with COVID [Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos], and he called up a 19-year-old midfielder [Aidan Morris], telling him: ‘Hey, be ready, because you’re starting in the MLS Cup Final.’ That shows how much belief he has in his all of his players – if you are 35, or 18, or 17, if you are good enough, you’re old enough.

“He always makes sure he treats all of his players the same. He will talk to you as a human being – not as a player: ‘Hey, be careful, take care of yourself, and when your name is called up, you step up for the team.’ He will make you understand: ‘I’m not talking to you just as a player, but as my son.’ He’s got two sons and one daughter, so he’s always treating us like one of his own. Being able to have that in him is incredible.

“We are all representing the same badge, and he makes sure he spreads the love across to everyone. It’s a relationship and a bond he’s created that takes us a long way. It takes a lot of work [to build that culture]. The guys have seen what he’s looking to instill in us, reinforce. When he came in, he said: ‘There’s a good group of guys, a good team,’ and that’s why he chose this team. For him to be on two previous teams and to be able to win the championship with them, he’s definitely doing something right.

“The teams and the players always buy into his ideas. It takes a lot of work, (and for us to have the understanding of what he’s looking for us to do), we’re willing to put in the work because we know it’s definitely going to work. Talking to a few of the guys, they can see it’s not easy – it’s going to be challenging, but it’s a good challenge for us to move to where we want to be as a team.”

Equally admired for his tactical nous, Porter is currently in the process of implementing his philosophies and playing style, as the Revs gear up for the 2024 campaign with a preseason warm-weather training camp in Florida.

Applying a measured and meticulous method to ensure a smooth transition in the quest to become true title contenders, the head coach has urged patience in the progress, allowing time for the team to adapt, build fitness, and forge and strengthen relationships.

Already familiar with the strategy, Mensah has witnessed first-hand the benefits of Porter’s approach as part of a championship-winning outfit. Though he admits the adjustment period can take time, the defender added his new teammates are responding well to new ideas, helped by clear instruction.

“Even though the jump has been a little hard, I know what he’s trying to implement,” the center back noted. “I’ve played in his system for four years, and I know what he’s expecting from us, but it’s going to take a lot of work. I’m glad the guys have bought in from day one. It’s preseason, we are enjoying it, and learning at the same time, so it’s been good so far.

“It’s very intriguing to get to learn new things from new managers, and playing for Caleb, you know that all he is trying to teach you is to help you go out there and enjoy yourself – of course, to use your own football intelligence as well, because when you’re on the field, we’ve learned all the tactics, but sometimes, the opposition will do something else, so you need to use your own football intelligence. He will tell us: ‘Hey, you guys are not robots, so I’m giving you these tactics, but on the other side, I’m giving you the freedom to express yourself, and enjoy yourself.’

“His ideas in how to break teams is very crucial – especially in-game adjustment is very crucial for a manager to have. I remember [Columbus] played against Nashville in a playoff game. It was 0-0 at 90 minutes, we went to extra-time, and he made a few points where he told the fullbacks to come inside, overload the midfield. It gave us a lot of advantage in the midfield in possession – ‘now even if we lose the ball, we still have numbers to counter-press.’ In doing that, we got two goals in extra-time and won the game. Having that in him is very helpful for the team.

“[To be a winning team] you have to manage the moment, play the moment right; stick together regardless of the results, make sure we are improving every day in training, and make sure we address the truth and be honest with each other, because it’s not going to be pretty all the time – sometimes, there are going to be times where things don’t go our way, and that is the time we need each other most.

“When the wins come, everyone will be all smiling, but when draws, or a couple of losses come, you don’t need to point fingers – you just need to go to your brother, and be like: ‘Hey bro, we can do better.’ This is where we watch film to see where we can do better: ‘This is where we can improve. These things we did were good, but we can even do more.’ It’s making sure we have that trust in each other, that we’re honest – when it’s good, we know it’s good, and when it’s not good, we know it wasn’t good. We need to raise our game, and help each other grow as players and people.”

Recruited to bolster the Revs’ defensive options, Mensah boasts a wealth of experience – set to embark on his eighth season in MLS (having previously plied his trade in his native Ghana, South Africa, Italy, Spain, France, and Russia), and tallying 70 caps for his country.

Hailed ‘a positive presence in the locker room’ upon his arrival in Foxborough, the center back brings additional drive and determination, as well as depth. Relishing the prospect of a new challenge and new personal chapter in New England, Mensah says he is settling well into the squad (alongside new and familiar faces), and cannot wait to explore his new surroundings, and integrate into the local community.

“It’s been great so far,” he continued. “I’ve got to be with lots of good guys, so it’s been an easier transition for me. I know Ema [Boateng] already [from Columbus] so I’m close to him. Dave Romney and Henry Kessler obviously play in the same position as me, so I’m getting to know them better, knowing their game. Their understanding of the game is up there, they understand their roles, and we’re talking to each other often, watching film together, looking for ways to improve every day.

“I’m excited to work with everyone on the team – whoever I get to step on the field with. We’re all representing the same badge, we’ve all got the same goals. Even though we all have individual goals, we need to make sure we fit them into the collective goals, and make all of the sacrifices for each other – the more I sacrifice for a teammate, the more it shows in the team’s success. Whoever I’m next to, we’re going to work together.

“We’ve got a good team, and with all of the work we’re putting in, and getting to learn new things from Caleb, and the idea of progressing daily, will help us to be the great team we want to be. Before I joined the team, I always knew playing the Revs was one of the toughest challenges for me, and now being on the team, I know we’re going to give teams a lot of problems, as well.

“Being able to be present every day, being able to improve every day, asking each other what we need from each other (because if I don’t ask you what you need, I won’t know – I need to talk, I need to make sure: ‘Hey, let me know where you want the ball,’ because whether it’s the back foot or the front foot will depend on the pressure), and having this understanding between us will take us a long way.

“As a center back, I do my best to weigh the risk and reward – whether it’s the right time to play it from the back, whether it’s the right time to kick it to the strikers, play a couple of balls behind the backline – as well as making sure I organize from the back, because as much as our defense starts with our attack, our attack starts with us as defenders. It’s a little bit of everything – being aggressive when I need to be, being calm when I need to be, and being vocal when I need to be.

“[My motivation is] being mentally, physically and emotionally ready to perform at my best, making sure I’m getting all the rest that I need for preparation – individually, we all prepare differently, and as a team, we prepare differently. As an individual, I make sure I’m ready, make sure I don’t overreact to things on the field – just play the game, have fun, and don’t react to certain things the opposition will do. Sometimes, teams try to frustrate you, but you need to keep a calm head, and know that there’s a bigger picture ahead, so I prepare myself as best I can.

“I believe the preparation is everything, and then after all the preparation, it’s time to implement all of the things you learned in preseason, and showcase it in games. Preseason is all about getting ready physically, mentally and emotionally, and then being ready when points are on the line. In preseason, the points don’t count but the progress and the improvement, and building a strong team, counts a lot. It’s about improving daily in making sure that we are ready when it matters most.

“I’m definitely excited about the start of the season, to showcase what we’ve been working on. Getting to play those games is always exciting, so I can’t wait for us to get out there, and win some games for our fans. We’re going on the road to start but to get that first win with a new coaching staff, come back home, get that first home win, it would start everything well for the team. You get that first one – ‘good, you’ve got that’ – then get that second one, and that would get us rolling.

“I can’t wait to start the season, I can’t wait to meet the fans, and enjoy it in front of them. I can’t wait to start exploring. I love going into the communities because they are the backbone of the team – they come to every game (whether it’s midweek or at the weekend) to support the team – so whatever we can do for them in the communities, we are always willing to go above and beyond to help them, as well.

“We need to be taking care of business on the field, and off the field can be as important as what we do on it. We thank the fans for their support, and we do our best in the communities. I can’t wait to get a place and start exploring the area.”