Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Major League Soccer’s next budding young star needs only three strides to get to full speed, gliding past defenders as though they were stationary traffic cones, before approaching the opposing goal at light speed.
Only 19 years old, Vancouver Whitecaps forward Kekuta Manneh is a budding star in a league that includes a number of talented young players. However, Manneh’s recent performances are starting to make more people take notice.
After entering as a second half substitute in five of the Whitecaps first six games of the MLS season, Manneh has started three games in a row, putting together promising performances and showing flashes of the speed and technique that compelled the Whitecaps to select him with the fourth overall pick of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft.
So what changed for Manneh, after spending most of last year on the fringes of the squad until the end of the season, to put him in the lineup at this moment? In Manneh’s words, it’s the impact of first-year head coach Carl Robinson.
“It’s really great having a coach that believes in you, a coaching staff that will give you a chance to play,” Manneh told SBI. “They believe in you and then they say they will keep giving the young guys a chance so I’m trying to make the most of it.”
The Whitecaps made the controversial decision during the offseason to replace Martin Rennie with Carl Robinson, who spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach with first the New York Red Bulls and then the Whitecaps. Whitecaps management were honest when hiring Robinson, admitting that they had made advances for former U.S. Men’s National Team and MLS head coach Bob Bradley before the offer was rejected.
However, the early indications are that Robinson is just the right coach for a team with an aging back line as well as talented youngsters dotted all across midfield and the forward lines. The 37-year-old Welshman, who labeled Manneh “a fantastic prospect,” hasn’t been afraid to give youth a chance this season, and his young charges are paying him back for the confidence Robinson’s provided them.
“He’s been a big part of my career from last year coming into this year,” explained Manneh. “Since last year, he’s been working with me individually and also with the other younger guys. He believes so much in us and he’s going to give us a chance a play, so that means a lot to us (young guys).
“That’s what all the young players need, to give them a chance to play and he’s doing that.”
During a recent match against the Columbus Crew at Crew Stadium, the speedy Gambian was a menace on the left wing, forcing Crew right back Josh Williams, right midfielder Hector Jimenez, and even centerback Giancarlo Gonzalez to divert their focus from the ball to Manneh for much of the game. Though Manneh didn’t score, he could have finished with at least a couple of assists, taking advantage of turnovers to run at the Crew backline and slide passes through to teammates Erik Hurtado and Sebastian Fernandez.
Hurtado, who ended up with the game-winning goal in the Whitecaps 1-0 win over the Crew, said that he enjoys playing alongside Manneh because Hurtado knows that Manneh has the ability to get by his defender in a one-on-one situation and deliver a good ball into the box.
“We’ve played with each other ever since we’ve got here, last year in the reserve games and in practice every single day so we know what each other’s going to do,” Hurtado said. “He knows to set me off or set me loose right away as soon as we win (the ball).
“It’s amazing,” continued Hurtado. “He’s a raw talent, he’s 19 years old, he comes on and he produces so well. It’s so fun playing with him because you know he’s going to beat the defender and you just have to get inside the box.”
So far this season, Manneh has compiled three goals and an assist, to take his fledgling career totals to nine goals and three assists. Last season, Manneh became the youngest player in MLS to score a hat-trick, bagging three goals at CenturyLink Field against the Seattle Sounders in just 53 minutes.
All three goals came with Manneh one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and the then-18-year-old showed incredible composure to finish in one of the highest-pressure situations a striker faces.
Robinson knows that as long as Manneh’s performances remain consistent, he’s bound to stay in the lineup for a long time.
“He’s a fantastic prospect,” Robinson said. “Obviously he’s getting more game-time now, he’s getting fitter, but he’s just one of a number of youngsters that I’ve got and they’re talented youngsters.
“I’m going to give these youngsters a possibility to play throughout the season. I’ll pick and choose when I play them and I’ll bring them in and bring them out, but when they perform like that they’ll probably be more in the team than out of the team.”
For all his talent and ability, Manneh’s most impressive feature might be his humble and blue-collar nature. While he refused to admit that he may very well be the fastest player in MLS, Manneh revealed that he’s been putting in extra hours after practice with the coaching staff and that he wants to prove to his teammates that he’ll give his all for them.
“Being a team player, connecting with my teammates, working my socks off every single day at practice and games, not taking anything lightly, and going for it, giving 100 percent every day,” Manneh said about what he’s focusing on in training. “I do some extra work after practice with the coaching staff, and that’s been really helping me a lot.”
As Manneh continues to improve, MLS defenders will quickly learn the name on the back of his Whitecaps No. 23 jersey, as he slaloms past them on his way to goal.
It’s the only thing they’ll see on Manneh’s way to stardom.