Kekuta Manneh's long and winding road to Cincinnati
IT WAS A three-minute walk from Kekuta Manneh's home in Bakau, Gambia, to his local soccer field, an uneven dirt pitch also used for daily prayer and naming ceremonies. Manneh and his friends played wherever they could; even ramshackle streets with slippers for goals would do.
Today, like so many others, a 10-year-old Manneh and his cadre were en route to pickup. When people started running past them into his compound, Manneh's shine dimmed. Sobbing wails hung in the air. His group doubled back with trepidation, balls and shoes in hand, only to see neighbors encircling Manneh's family. When murmurs of his mother's name registered, Manneh understood: His mother was gone. Her kidneys had finally given out.
"The most painful moment of my life," Manneh, the 24-year-old winger, says now.
Then and there, he resolved to live a life that would honor her. Manneh threw himself deeper into soccer, his sport becoming more obsession than hobby. Manneh subsequently lived with his grandmother, and his time at home drew scarce. Whether he was playing soccer alone against a wall, small-sided or four corners, every moment went into honing his craft, prowess with a ball the fulcrum of the life he knew -- and a ticket to another.
Manneh knew, if he eventually turned pro, it was something the whole country would talk about. Europe was Shangri-La, but felt unattainable. There were whispers, though, that a certain continent to the northwest had budding soccer promise.
The United States was a place he could thrive, a place he might be able to call home.
WHEN GAMBIA WON the 2005 and 2009 U-17 African Cup of Nations and qualified for the World Cup with Manneh's contemporaries, the country seemingly overnight became an untapped fount of soccer talent to American scouts. Major League Soccer was entering its second decade and had reportedly lost $350 million in its first. Globalization was imperative, not aspirational.
"Nike did a partnership with my academy," Manneh says, "looking to establish an exchange program, take players to America every year and develop them into professionals."
America? Manneh thought, MTV's America?
"Nobody saw America as a footb-," he catches himself, "a soccer nation. I knew 50 Cent, Nelly, Chuck Norris.
"That was the America I knew," Manneh says with a chuckle. "Until [some] Gambians got signed by MLS teams. People said: 'Wait, you can actually play in America?'"
Manneh, then with the Gambia Rush, an offshoot of the American Rush Soccer's international academy, had become one of the most talented young players in the country. He was also one of the lucky ones chosen and still remembers his family crowding him as he held aloft, like de facto Golden Tickets, a newly minted passport and visa.
"I don't think I'll ever forget that," he says.
He absconded to Georgia in 2010 through the Rush program; extended family he'd never met offered a bed. Before leaving home, his family told him about the America they knew, rife with guns, violence and prejudice. (Unbeknownst to him, Manneh would be living 20 minutes from Forsyth, where in 1912 white locals had forced out all 1,098 black residents.) They advised him not to go out much, but said going to the movies would be OK.
"With that narrative in my head, outside of soccer, I barely left the house," he says.
He quickly became disillusioned with the soccer. Games were few and far between, the competition was subpar, and Manneh had expected a built-in pathway to the MLS.
"I wanted more," Manneh says.
A more competitive team in Texas within the academy was taking on players. The Niccums, a white Christian family of five, gladly opened their home. Their eldest son, Cameron, and matriarch, LaRhonda, were both involved with the team -- defender and team mom, respectively. Hosting Manneh seemed a natural fit.
LaRhonda Niccum remembers a cripplingly shy 15-year-old who arrived at her doorstep malnourished and with latent tuberculosis.
"He so blessed our family," Niccum says, a slight drawl peppering her speech. "He was very likeable right off the bat, but very shy. Coming into a new culture, of course he was."
Manneh, an African-born Muslim, was living squarely in the Bible Belt.
"Everybody was really accepting," Niccum says. "He went to church with us, we listened to him, and there was never any issue. Just love."
Manneh says: "We had some cultural differences, at first, and I didn't know how to act around them. It was my first time living with people that don't look like me. Once we got to know each other, that went away.
"[Muslims, Christians], we both believe that God is leading the way, that everything happens for a reason."
Within months, he'd taken to the Niccums. They'd bonded on road trips, at church and at family dinners. He eventually confided in them about his mother's death.
Then news reached that he needed to return home to renew his visa. The thought nearly destroyed him.
"Most of the time, you don't [come] back," Manneh says.
The Niccums told Manneh they wanted him to stay and talked to him about adoption. They detailed an arduous process, but Kekuta had fallen in love with America and the Niccums with him. Manneh wanted to become a citizen. Adopting Manneh wouldn't win him citizenship right away, but it was a start.
Manneh's father, who wasn't around much when Manneh lived in Gambia, relinquished parental rights; Manneh's new life in the U.S. began.
"We loved him to pieces," Niccum says. "God just popped him into our lap."
By 2012, the family had moved to Austin, and Manneh had attracted the attention of the Austin Aztex of the Premier Development League, the highest level of amateur competition U.S. Soccer offers.
Manneh wasn't a role player; at 17, he was all-conference in a league of more than a thousand of America's best 18- to 22-year-olds. He trained briefly with the LA Galaxy but never signed with the team. Less than two weeks after turning 18, ahead of the 2013 MLS Draft, Manneh inked a contract with Generation Adidas, a joint effort between MLS and U.S. Soccer to grow local talent. It was the crescendo to his meteoric rise.
The kicker: Manneh was told a Canadian team would be taking him. He was crestfallen. He'd been progressing toward citizenship, and applicants had to remain in the States for five years without significant absence. Canada meant starting over.
The Vancouver Whitecaps traded up to get Manneh fourth overall. Manneh thought his fate was sealed. But someone within the Whitecaps organization had a suggestion.
"They said, 'There's this place that's basically Canada, but it's in the U.S.,'" Manneh recalls.
He could play for the Whitecaps and stay eligible for American citizenship.
Manneh was told the place was used for witness protection, that there's only one way in or out.
POINT ROBERTS, WASHINGTON, is cartographic fantasy: In 1846, the United States and Britain signed the Oregon Treaty, extending the boundary between Canada and the U.S.
But there was an aberration. Canadian land beneath the 49th parallel had been amputated: a 5-square-mile peninsula at the foot of British Columbia, mistakenly bequeathed to America.
The Point, as it's known, is an unincorporated community and census-designated U.S. soil, a crabbing haven unattached to the United States with only 1,300 full-time residents.
It was irony writ large: Again, Manneh would straddle cultures and countries to gain agency.
Manneh found an apartment fewer than 500 feet from the border, consummate wintry mountains looming in the distance.
New York Red Bulls and U.S. men's national team defender Tim Parker was a rookie in Vancouver in 2015 when he met Manneh. "He told me he was living in America and I said, 'How is that possible?'" Parker remembers.
Carol and Stephen Fowler, Canadian and English (as well as U.S. citizens), respectively, were his new landlords. Stephen had called The Point home for 40 years.
"We'd have him down for dinner," Carol Fowler says. "Lovely person. I'd never seen professional soccer before, but we started going to games." (They rib the witness protection myth: "Guess you'd never know, would you?")
On practice and game days, Manneh would drive nearly two hours round-trip, liaising with border patrol agents twice a day, his most consistent personal interactions.
His teammates originally had no idea he was commuting to become an American. Solitude weighed heavy on the 20-year-old.
"He was a fun, great kid, so separated from everyone else," Parker says. "A couple guys might've visited him once or twice? I never made it out there."
The quiet anonymity of The Point sometimes amused Manneh, though. "I would watch [the neighborhood] get ready for Whitecaps games Saturday mornings," he says. "They'd have their jerseys on in the street and I'm just driving by, waving.
"People didn't understand why I lived there. I said, 'This is my home.'"
The response was often an unconvinced shrug.
In 2013, he was the youngest in league history to notch a hat trick. In 2014, he was 12th on MLS' 24 Under 24 list, then second the following year. Rumors of interest from Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal abounded.
Such was the tedium of his routine, Manneh's five-year anniversary in America snuck up on him. He applied for citizenship and prayed. Manneh needed good news: Injuries had hampered his progress, and he played only 17 games in 2016.
That September, with the Niccums in tow, Kekuta Manneh became an American citizen in a private ceremony in Seattle. Six months later, Vancouver shipped him to Columbus.
Manneh was overjoyed to learn under Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter, now helming the U.S. men's national team.
"Gregg knows his system inside and out," Manneh recalls. "It was beautiful to be part of how football should be played."
Yet Manneh averaged only 45 minutes a game, still tallying four goals and three assists despite only starting nine matches.
"Kekuta has a unique skill set," says Berhalter, fresh off the U.S. men's runner-up showing at the Gold Cup. "He's very dynamic individually, extremely calm and calculated in front of goal, and finishes plays."
But during a magical playoff run amid unceasing rumors of team relocation -- birthing the viral hashtag #SaveTheCrew -- Manneh was deemed surplus. At contract's end, he elected to go abroad.
Union Berlin, then in Bundesliga 2, extended Manneh an offer. He hopped on a flight, planning to sign, feeling reborn.
"I get to the locker room," he says, "and the coaching staff gets fired."
Weeks before his 23rd birthday, Manneh was unincorporated territory himself.
"Every high-level player experiences moments where it doesn't go their way," Berhalter says. "It's about how you respond to those challenges."
Manneh linked up with Pachuca in Liga MX, but fell out of favor and left after only eight minutes of league play. He was called into U.S. camp, but uncapped. Then Swiss side St. Gallen took him on, but he couldn't break into the starting 11. MLS teams reached out; newly named U.S. men's coach Berhalter discussed January camp if he was returning. Manneh felt in form, determined to succeed in Europe. He stayed, to no avail. This past February, when FC Cincinnati inquired, he nearly leapt back across the Atlantic.
"I saw the noise Cincinnati fans make, while I was with Columbus, the run in the Open Cup," Manneh says. "I wanted to be a part of that."
After two years of Sisyphean catastrophe, unceremoniously rejected in Germany, playing fewer than 10 games in Mexico and Switzerland combined, his boulder found purchase atop the hill.
Now, Manneh is playing regular soccer again.
Former Cincinnati assistant and Gambian native Pa-Modou Kah can't say enough about Manneh's resilience. "He's only 24, with all the talent in the world and a wonderful understanding of the game. He's a whatever-it-takes [kind of player]," says Kah.
Calling America home was once a pipe dream. Now? Manneh wants to play for the U.S., see those Stars and Stripes draped over his chest.
"It's up to him," Berhalter says. "We have a lot of respect for him and what he brings to the team. He can change the game at any moment: Now it's about performance. We don't close doors on players and giving opportunities to immigrants made us who we are as a country.
"As long as he's performing at a high level, you get an opportunity."
Manneh has kept long-distance relationships with his father and brothers, and he's finally considering visiting Gambia. Having gained agency, literally and aesthetically adopted by America, it's time to retrace those 4,500 miles to the provenance of everything, to visit his mother.
At training recently, while exiting the pitch, a teammate asked Manneh where he was headed at season's end.
Manneh walked down the tunnel toward the locker room, the teammate falling behind, lost in his phone.
"Home," Manneh called back.
"Home," he breathed. "Texas."