The 19-year-old Gambian was a bright spark on an otherwise dull weekend for the Vancouver Whitecaps in a dynamic 30-minute substitute appearance, scoring a vital equalizing goal.VANCOUVER, B.C. -- As disappointing as Sunday's 1-1 draw with 10-man Chivas USA was for the Vancouver Whitecaps, for fans – and hell, even the neutral – it was difficult not to get excited about the introduction of Kekuta Manneh on the hour mark.
Once again the 19-year-old showed his ability to glide past defenders and get into good positions, and ultimately it was he who saved the 'Caps the humiliation of losing to a team playing a man down for the vast majority of the match, when he calmly found the equalizer with nine minutes left to play.
This follows a seven-minute cameo appearance in Vancouver's 4-1 opening day over the New York Red Bulls.
Some fans will be wondering given the player's dynamism this past weekend, why didn't he start the match? Well, apart from keeping as much continuity as possible after a successful opening day win, the reality is the Gambian is regaining fitness after struggling with a back injury – apparently somewhat of a chronic issue Manneh said he has been dealing with since joining the Whitecaps last season.
Recently, the injury sidelined him for a month of preseason, and of late he's been doing rehabilitation work in the pool to strengthen the area.
“I had [the injury] for a while, before I joined the Whitecaps,” Manneh told reporters after a training session at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday. “It went away, and then it just came back this offseason. I don't know how it happened.”
Manneh explained the club's medical team has said a disc in his back is unstable, but said that in recent weeks he's feeling “almost 100 percent.” Still, even if he's healthy, he's not yet at full match fitness, according to assistant coach Martyn Pert, who stood in for media availability as head coach Carl Robinson opted to avoid the scrum as he deals with a minor bug.
“Well he's certainly not fit,” Pert responded when a reporter asked if he was surprised by Manneh's contributions this weekend. “You could see that from the way he recovered from the explosive work he did in the game...he couldn't work as hard as we would have liked him to do because of his fitness, but his quality and ability to go past people in this league is excellent.
“So he made an impact. That's the reason we brought him on, because we thought he could get down the side, and he did, and he scored a goal and he had other chances, so we're pleased with him.”
But given his performance, recovery issues or not, would that prompt the Whitecaps to give him a start against New England this weekend? Pert's answers would suggest: not so fast.
“Kekuta is only coming back, so building up his play gradually,” Pert said. “Last weekend...when we were cruising 2-0, we were doing quite well he came on. Now he's got 30 minutes on grass, as well as the travel, and coping with his back issues, so it was good for him – another 30 minutes in a game.”
And while Pert was careful to play down what sort of minutes Manneh is capable of playing at this stage, when asked about the player's long-term potential – given the coach's experience as an assistant coach at Premier League level -- the Englishman gave a measured response, acknowledging the player's raw talent while stating there's still much for the player to learn.
“Potentially,” Pert responded when asked about the possibilities of the player someday making the move to Europe. “He's quick, technically good. I would say he's got a lot to learn and work out in his game if that's to come to fruition, but he's potentially got the opportunity to do that.”
Striker Kenny Miller credited the youngster for making an impact when he came on, but suggested if there was an area the player could improve, it was knowing when to make the pass or when to take an opponent on.
Pert was slightly kinder in his assessment of the player but acknowledged Manneh can improve on those split-second judgement calls.
“If Kekuta with his pace and ability to beat one-v-one, if his decision-making was top drawer, he wouldn't be here, he'd be already in Europe,” Pert said. “Let's not get the boy down, or say anything negative about him. He's got a lot of potential and those things will improve in time. So, I wouldn't necessarily put that on him right this minute.
“Decision making is something you learn as you go on, and he wants to learn.”