With MLS having just kicked off its 19th season, the Youth Soccer Insider's "When They Were Children" series is looking back at the formative years of some of the league's brightest stars, such as the boy from Gambia who moved to Texas to pursue his dream of becoming a pro soccer player.
By Mike Woitalla
Kekuta Manneh grew up speaking three languages: Mandinka, Wolof and English.
“I mainly speak Mandinka,” says the 19-year-old. “That’s my tribal language. A lot of my academy teammates and friends in my town speak Wolof, so I spoke Wolof with them. In school, the teachers teach in English.”
So when Manneh, at age 15, moved from Gambia, the smallest nation on mainland Africa, for Texas, the largest state on mainland USA, he didn’t have to make a language adjustment, having been schooled in English. Nor did it take him long feel comfortable on the soccer field.
“Soccer has just one language,” Manneh said. “And my teammates were very helpful. That helped a lot.”
Manneh came to the USA through Rush SC, the Colorado-based club that has expanded throughout the USA and as far as Africa. Manneh is one of 10 foreign players who have been welcomed by Houston-based Texas Rush.
In his first season for Coach Don Gemmell’s Rush team, Manneh scored 35 goals in 23 games in U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-16 play.
“All the international players go though some adjustment period,” said Gemmell. “But it wasn’t long before he started banging in goals and you knew there was something special about him. By the Winter Showcase, people started taking notice of Kekuta. … There weren’t professional opportunities for him in Gambia. The grand plan was always to provide him a path to the pros.”
Manneh played the following season with Lonestar SC's U-18s and kept up his scoring rate. In 2013, he was the fourth pick in the MLS SuperDraft and headed to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
In 20 appearances (six starts) Manneh scored six goals in just 764 minutes of play and became the youngest player to hit an MLS hat trick.
His dazzling performances quickly made him a fan favorite. “Kekuta Manneh providing thrills for the Vancouver Whitecaps crowd” was a Vancouver Sun headline last summer. The Province called Manneh a “Box of Tricks.”
The biggest challenge of going from youth ball to the pros was facing bigger players and the “physicality.” Said 5-foot-9, 140-pound Manneh, “I go to the gym everyday to work out and get stronger.”
Off the field, Manneh says he’s gotten used to the cold weather, an adjustment he didn’t have to make when he moved from Africa to Texas, where he was hosted by the Niccum family, who eventually adopted him. (Manneh’s mother died when he was 10.) LaRhonda Niccum served as Texas Rush team manager. She still checks on him in Vancouver to make sure he’s doing his online classwork toward a high school diploma. And when he visits on breaks prepares his new favorite food: chili.
“I was not used to American food at all,” said Manneh. “I used to eat rice with every meal. But now I’ve gotten to like chili, mac & cheese – and I love Chick-fil-A.”
Manneh grew up watching soccer from all the big European leagues. Ronaldinho was his favorite player. And he started learning about MLS when fellow Gambians Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi signed with the New England Revolution.
Gambia a soccer mad nation, but with a population of only 1.8 million, its international soccer exploits have been modest -- never having qualified for a World Cup or Africa Cup of Nations. So when then Baby Scorpions, with Mansally and Nyassi, reached the 2007 Under-20 World Cup in Canada, the nation followed with pride -- and learned about MLS because the team warmed up against clubs from the league, including the Whitecaps. Now, in Manneh’s hometown of Bakua, they follow MLS.
“One of my friends told me they watched my last game in the video clubs!” said Manneh.
Previous editions of the Youth Soccer Insider’s “When They Were Children” series:
Diego Fagundez & Mike Magee
MLS 2014 SuperDraft Picks: Andre Blake, Steve Birnbaum, Christian Dean, Steve Neumann, Eric Miller, Damion Lowe.
Darlington Nagbe, Sean Johnson, Nick Rimando, Luis Silva, Juan Agudelo
Mario Balotelli & Philipp Lahm
Nani & David Silva
Cristiano Ronaldo & Danny Welbeck
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Andres Iniesta & Andriy Shevchenko
U.S. Women World Cup 2011 (Alex Morgan & Co.)
Logan Pause, David Ferreira, Fredy Montero, Dwayne De Rosario, CJ Sapong, Perry Kitchen, Tim Ream