MLS in Focus: Vancouver’s Kekuta Manneh

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By Ryan Brister

On Wednesday night, the Vancouver Whitecaps claimed the Voyageurs’ Cup for the first time in their history. In doing so, they secured their place in the CONCACAF Champions’ League for the second straight season. Perhaps more pressingly, the Whitecaps have as good a shot as any Canadian team has ever had at claiming a league-wide trophy in MLS. They have the most points-per-game in the league, and their away form promises to make them a tough out in the playoffs.

These are exciting times to be a Whitecaps supporter. Beyond the success, Carl Robinson’s team has a refreshing amount of young talent coming up through the ranks. I’ve already written about Matias Laba, the 23-year-old destroyer. Now I want to talk about a guiltier pleasure.

On those late Saturday nights watching MLS Live, Kekuta Manneh has consistently caught my eye. It’s not always for good reasons, but the 20-year-old is one of my favorite players to watch in MLS.

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When Manneh began his MLS career at the age of 18, he already had the physical gifts required for the league. He is blessed with incredible speed, both on and off the ball. He became the youngest player in league history to score a hat trick in his fourth start. And he did it in Seattle, no less. Rumors at the time had him linked with Arsenal and Liverpool.

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Manneh’s speed makes him a danger regardless of where he or the ball is. He can pressure defenders into making mistakes, and simply out-run anyone in the league when he has the ball. Against Kansas City, he put together a first half brace, and was a constant threat.

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Vancouver’s most recent game in MLS was against Dallas, which is fitting because the player Manneh most reminds me of is Fabian Castillo. It’s hard to think of two players in the league more capable of single-handedly creating excitement than those two.

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But the criticism of Manneh throughout his young career has been that after he runs through defenses, the final and most important ball too often eludes him. Having done the hard work to get into space, he tends to make the wrong decision or otherwise be unable to beat the keeper. That’s a recurring theme in these highlights.

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He’s 20, so he has time to work on these things, but it can make him as frustrating to watch as he is entertaining. That clinical edge is what separates him from a player like Fabian Castillo, who more regularly turns his chances into goals and assists.

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But with six goals and five assists this year, both career highs, Manneh has taken strides towards adding that finishing touch. In related news, he has seen significantly more playing time, with 20 starts in Vancouver’s 26 matches. If and when he turns the corner—the rest of the league is in trouble


 

If all that wasn’t reason to keep an eye on Manneh, he may have a future with the U.S. national team. While Manneh was born in Gambia and plays in Vancouver, he has been living just south of the border in Washington in order to acquire American citizenship, which could come as early as next year. Under FIFA rules, he could become eligible for the USMNT in 2018, provided he lives in the country until then.

His career path would seem destined for Europe, but the efforts Manneh has taken to keep his potential eligibility are encouraging for fans of the USMNT.