USMNT prospect Kekuta Manneh enjoying Vancouver resurgence
When Kekuta Manneh was growing up in the Gambia, the school he attended required that he join the track team. Given the speed with which he torments opponents on the soccer field, one might have expected that he would be No. 1 on the track as well.
"A lot of the guys I grew up with were very fast," he told ESPN FC via telephone. "I was not the star. I was not the guy they pointed to when they needed a result."
As it turned out, Manneh's love of soccer eventually prevailed, and for that, the Vancouver Whitecaps are grateful. Ahead of this weekend's game against the Portland Timbers (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), the 21-year-old looks to once again be a player the Caps can count on to help them get results.
Last weekend, Manneh delivered a devastating performance using his speed and aggressiveness to score twice and have a hand in the Whitecaps' other two goals in a 4-3 road win over Toronto FC. His effectiveness was the result of a tactical switch devised by Vancouver manager Carl Robinson. Instead of positioning Manneh in his customary left midfield role, he placed him underneath striker Erik Hurtado with the idea of preventing Toronto from playing out of the back through Michael Bradley. With its usual way of playing disrupted, Manneh and the Caps pounced, routinely threatening in transition, and giving the Vancouver attacker more opportunities in one-on-one situations.
"It's not a midfield player doubling up on me with their fullback," said Manneh. "It's me against a center back, a defender, one-versus-one. I think playing in that position, I'm always in those positions to receive the ball. If you pick those good spots, you create space for yourself and your teammates, and as the game goes by, the game opens up and you find yourself in one-versus-one situations all over the field. I think it did get the best out of me in that game."
Manneh noted that he played as a withdrawn forward for much of his youth career, so he was comfortable in the spot. And the switch has also added another club in Robinson's tactical bag, making it harder for opponents to game plan against Manneh.
"Would I look at playing Kekuta there again? Without a doubt," said Robinson. "In certain games, with certain dynamics, that will dictate that. But if he performs like he does, then more than likely he's going to be in a similar position, but he'll be on the field, which is the most important thing."
That hasn't always been the case this season for Manneh. When he sprained his ankle in the first leg of the Caps' playoff defeat to the Portland Timbers last year, it was thought that Manneh would miss a few weeks, or a month or two at most. But the injury lingered not only in terms of his physical well-being, but mentally as well.
"I was enjoying my game, I felt comfortable in the game, my confidence was very high," he said. "I know it was the end of the season, a playoff game, but I thought I could have helped the team not only win that game but I could play a part in [the second leg]. I'm not an emotional person, but I cried after that happened. It was very disappointing."
Manneh sustained a setback with the injury early in the season when he rolled the ankle in training, which had a detrimental effect on his confidence and his game. He saw the field in every game for which he was available, but didn't always start. He spoke of "not being on the same page," as his teammates, and as the Whitecaps struggled in the early weeks of the season, Robinson took note.
"I don't think Manneh was bad, but I don't think he was exceptionally good, and that was across the board with all my players," he said. "What we needed to do was keep working, and he did, he put the work in. I pulled him out of the team, for his own good as well, and he responded on Saturday. He was very hungry."
Robinson added that Manneh has improved his tactical awareness "dramatically" in the last 12 months, especially when Vancouver doesn't have the ball. What the Vancouver manager is looking for now his more consistency.
"With all young players, it's about not trying to turn it on and off," said Robinson.
"You can't be a player that just comes in and trains and works hard when you want to. You have to do it all the time. That's part of what we're teaching Kekuta to do. For the two hours that he's in training, he concentrates, because concentration levels for young players is a thing that can make them inconsistent. With all young players, if they become inconsistent, then they don't play as many games as they want."
With his ankle getting stronger by the week, the likelihood of that happening looks set to increase. And with it, discussions of Manneh's international future are coming up again. Manneh indicated that he had satisfied all of the residency requirements to receive U.S. citizenship -- thanks to his living just over the border in Point Roberts, Washington. He expects to file his paperwork at the end of this month and estimated that he'll receive his citizenship in September.
"I talked to my mom, my family, my agent, and the plan is to apply for the passport, and then we'll go from there," he said. "After the application [is submitted] we'll see what happens.
Manneh, with his speed, would seem to be exactly the kind of player that U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann would want in his team. Manneh said he had spoken to Klinsmann as recently as last month.
"[Klinsmann] has been checking how the process is going, how the games are going, how I'm feeling, everything," he said. "It's been good that they're still very much interested."
For now, Manneh is focusing on this weekend's game against the same Portland side against which his season ended last year. He was suspended for the first encounter against the Timbers this season, and he is eager to have another go against the reigning MLS Cup champions.
"My mind isn't far away from that injury," he said. "I just want to go help the team out and hopefully get three points or a point from that game. It's a mental thing, it happens all the time. In this game, it could be in my mind and then it could give me a lot of energy and having a point to prove. If I play the same position I'm going to just try to play the same game as against Toronto."
And be the player Vancouver can count on.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.