The Vancouver Whitecaps have experienced a better than typical summer this MLS season. In previous years, the Whitecaps have had the tendency to swan-dive during the summer months, tumbling down the standings. However, this year has been different. Since July 6th, against LA Galaxy, the Whitecaps have 7 wins, 3 losses, and 1 tie. A key contributor to that success has been Kekuta Manneh. During this 11-game stretch, Manneh has started each game and played 902 minutes. He has also contributed 5 goals and 4 assists, failing to register a point in only 3 matches. On the season, Manneh ranks second in goals scored (with 6) and is tied with Steven Beitashour for most assists (with 5).
It has always been known that Manneh was a player that had the potential to become special. However, that same potential has been seen in numerous other players who never end up making it to the next level. While Manneh started his career with the Whitecaps with a bang, being the youngest player in MLS to score a hat trick -and doing it against hated rival Seattle Sounders IN Seattle-, there have always been questions about where he was most suited to play on the field, whether he was best used as a super-sub or as a starter, and whether he could grow enough to be more than just a speedster with potential. Although there are many question marks that still remain with Kekuta Manneh, it is important to remember a few things.
- HE IS ONLY 20!!!! I think many people forget this part. He is still very young. I know there will be those that argue that ‘in soccer terms he is not very young’. I disagree. In European soccer terms he is not very young. However, in North American soccer terms, where he was trained and played, he is very young.
- He is actually a striker. Kekuta plays on the wing for the Whitecaps. In the discussions about how best to deploy Kekuta, many have noted he is actually a striker and should play up top. They have pointed to Camilo as a good example of what a player can do when they are moved from their unnatural position on the wing, to the top of the formation. Kekuta is not going to be a striker. That doesn’t mean he would not be best played there, just that while he is with the Whitecaps he will be a winger. What needs to be remember though, is that he is learning a new position and has different duties and responsibilities. One of which is more defending, which I will get to a bit more below. It takes time to learn those duties and how to play within a system. I doubt he has been coached much in the past, rather being told ‘go be fast and score goals’. I remember being in elementary school and high school and never really being coached in basketball because I was tall. It was always ‘go rebound the ball and put it in the net as you are above everyone else’. That resulted in me racking up the rebounds. Not because I was tall, but because I was a shitty shot! I was able to corral my own missed shot a few times until I eventually put it in the net. Needless to say, I am not a basketball player now, and when I started playing against people that were a similar size, I was not able to adjust because I was not taught how to best adjust. Kekuta is learning to adjust to playing a new position and playing against opponents who are smart enough to adjust. The scary part is, in many situations, he is still beating them, despite still learning how to play smarter. SCARY!
- HE IS ONLY 20!!!! Yes, I already mentioned this, but I believe it bears repeating. In 2014, Kekuta Manneh was slotted in 12th in MLS annual ’24 under 24’. Who was above him? Yedlin, Torres, Castillo, Zardes, Fagundez, Diaz, Plata, Gil, Trapp, Hamid, Power. Who was younger than him? None. Who was younger than 23 (Manneh was 19 at the time this was published)? Torres, Castillo, Fagundez, Gil, and Trapp. Pretty good company.
This is not to say that Manneh is not without his faults. However, I give him the benefit of the doubt because I see him learning. Maybe it is my personal stance, but I am okay with people making mistakes and even learning slowly, provided that they are learning. I see that every game with Manneh.
- I see him growing in how to play defense. He is still kinda bad, but he is not atrocious anymore. I believe his partnership with Harvey has really aided in that process.
- I see his stamina improving. Remember when he could not go 90 minutes? Last game he was completely gassed, and was probably told before the game, or at halftime, go all-out and we will sub you at 70 minutes. Cramps and so forth impacted the ability to do that. However, despite many 50 yard runs, he was able to manage out the end of the game. A testament to his continued growth in health. A final note, I recall an interview with him discussing his nutrition. That he was a junk-food guy and ate burgers, pop, fries, etc. He said it has been hard for him to get out of those bad habits, but he has done it because he wants to be better and wants to improve.
- Speaking of health, I see his body changing. I made remarks a few years back that I was concerned that Manneh would not put on enough weight to remain strong on the ball. He certainly has proved me wrong with his attention to nutrition. He is still lean, allowing him to remain fast and agile, but it is all muscle now. I do not think he had a lot of muscle when he was drafted. That cannot be said now. He is quickly becoming a hard guy to push off the ball.
- I see him growing in controlling his temper. He acknowledges that he has a history of anger issues (what teenager doesn’t). I see him getting better on and off the field. There have been comments, including by me, that his reactions when he has been taken off have been poor. Some have said that is him just being passionate and not wanting to come off. I disagree. There is a difference between passionate, and not wanting to come off, and being selfish, and wanting to stay on because you want to score for yourself. I believe that Manneh’s response, a few times, has been more the latter. However, he has improved in that regard. The game back in June, when he was taken off, and did not shake Robbo’s hand, the following game, he was taken off again, and behaved better. Sure, it was fresh, so he knew to behave better that time, but that is okay. How do you expect someone to learn if they do not make mistakes and then work to correct it? And how do you expect changes to become permanent if you do not acknowledge those little steps. He showed growth. Little, or large, he showed growth in maturity. He has also shown it in his on-field behavior towards opponents.
- I see him growing in his passing. Every game I think I say ‘Manneh would not have made that pass previously’. I also think that I yell at the screen every single game, saying ‘Make the f’ing pass Manneh!!!’. I recall a few weeks ago, making that exact same remark on the 86ers Twitter feed, only for him to pass a minute later to setup a Techera goal. He is improving. He still makes bad decisions. He still goes into a pool of 3 or 4 defenders alone, trying to beat them all, but you see him consciously making efforts to look up and find the open teammate. I think he still telegraphs a bit. That is, you have a good idea of when he is going to pass and when he is going to attack. He certainly needs to disguise it better, but the point is, he is starting to pass more; continuing to grow and evolve. AND, that is reflected in all the assists he is piling up. If he remains on his trajectory, he will turn in to a great footballer!