Whitecaps’ Manneh savours first taste of U.S. national team

Kekuta Manneh dribbles the ball as U.S. men's national soccer team coach Bruce Arena, rear left, watches during a practice session Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Carson, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

CARSON, Calif. — Kekuta Manneh’s days of commuting to work from the U.S. are over.

The electric Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder/forward, a native of the Gambia, had been living in Point Roberts, Wash., in order to build up the residency needed to qualify for American citizenship.

Point Roberts is part of the U.S. but is not physically connected to it. The 1,200-hectare enclave is located on the southern tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula, below the Vancouver suburb of Delta. Depending on the traffic, it’s about a 45-minute drive to Vancouver. But who wants to cross the border to get to work?

Some tips for international commuting. Manneh tried to have a little bit of both country’s cash in his wallet at all times. And he always tried to have a Plan B.

"I know all the routes," Manneh said with a chuckle.

His perseverance was rewarded last Wednesday when U.S. Soccer announced that the young Whitecap had received his citizenship. The news coincided with the 22-year-old Manneh’s first appearance at a U.S. national team camp.

"We knew the process going into it," Manneh said of the citizenship chase. "We figured out all the solutions. We had lawyers and agents helping me and my family. We knew it was going to be difficult but if we achieved the right steps, we would get it — so we weren’t worried about it."

Having previously played for the Gambian under-20 team, Manneh still needs a waiver from FIFA to play for the U.S. That is coming, although no one seems sure exactly when.

Manneh did not look out of at place at the U.S. camp Saturday, his fluorescent yellow boots standing out against the lush practice pitch just outside the StubHub Center.

He is lightning fast, with extraordinary dribbling skills — able to twist and turn defenders like a corkscrew. It’s a talent he first honed on bumpy patches back home in the Gambia, a small country on the west African coast that is surrounded by Senegal.

"I had to work on it …I’m still working on it," Manneh said of his remarkable ball skills. "Every day is a learning day for me."

Manneh, whose mother died when he was 10, came to the U.S. on a soccer exchange with the Texas Rush team when he was 15. He saw it as a "different challenge, a new opportunity" to get closer to his goal of being a pro soccer player.

"So it was very exiting, but it was scary at the same time," he said. "Leaving my family behind and coming thousands of miles away."

LaRhonda and Eric Niccum were Manneh’s Texas hosts when he arrived. Eventually they became his adoptive family.

Manneh went on to play for the PDL’s Austin Aztex and had just turned 18 when he was drafted fourth overall by Vancouver as a Generation Adidas player after a sparkling showing at the pre-draft Combine.

Toronto FC fans may be forgiven for grinding their teeth when they watch one of Manneh’s many dazzling runs. TFC had several chances to take Manneh at the 2013 draft. Missing out on the Gambian speedster was just part of the fallout of an ill-conceived day of wheeling, dealing and drafting by then-Toronto GM and president Kevin Payne.

Toronto traded away the first overall pick to New England, then took Canadian midfielder Kyle Bekker (now a Montreal backup) with the third selection before trading the fourth pick to Vancouver.

Manneh entered the MLS record books as an 18-year-old rookie in just his fourth start, becoming the youngest player to score a hat trick in a 4-1 victory over the Sounders in Seattle. It was also the first league hat trick in Whitecaps history.

In four seasons with Vancouver, Manneh has played in 98 league games (60 starts) with 22 goals and 12 assists. Last year, he missed half of the 2016 season due to a foot injury that required surgery.

Restored to health, he is looking for a breakthrough season.

Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson, who campaigned behind the scenes to get Manneh a U.S. call-up, is doing his bit to help his youngster flourish. But he too has high expectations.

"It’s an exiting time for him," said Robinson. "He’s an exciting talent. We know that he’s still very young but I’ve been working with him for five years now, so I probably know him better than he knows himself."

Pa-Modou Kah also knows Manneh inside out. The Gambian-born Kah roomed with Manneh when they played together on the Whitecaps.

"I consider him as my little brother," said Kah, who now serves as player-coach for Vancouver’s USL side FC Whitecaps 2.

The 36-year-old Kah still has Manneh’s back. On Saturday, he was watching and filming Manneh at practice with the U.S. team. The two talked at length after the session.

"He’s the kind of player that you pay to come to watch," said Kah. "But in football, there’s more to it than just flashy moments. This year he should be consistent with what he does — in terms of goal production and in terms of assist production. But also in terms of overall work ethic. I think he can improve that bit much more, because he has it in him.

"But what he has when he is on the ball, that is God-given talent. That is not something you teach somebody. All the other stuff is teachable and his approach to it is very good so he just has to keep working."

Like Manneh, Kah has travelled the world.

He left the Gambia for Norway with his family when he was eight and went on to become a Norwegian international. A centre back, he played club football in Sweden, the Netherlands, Qatar and Saudi Arabia before coming to MLS to play for Portland and Vancouver.

Kah, who has a Canadian-born daughter with his Dutch wife, speaks Arabic, Dutch, English, German, Norwegian, and Wolof — the main Gambian language he uses to speak to Manneh.

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