Manneh for USA: the FIFA hurdle

Vancouver's Kekuta Manneh may be the most exciting young player in MLS. The 20-year-old forward was born in Gambia but finished up high school in Texas. He says he is on path to become a U.S. citizen in August 2016 -- he even maintains a residence across the USA-Canada border in Washington -- and hopes to play for the USA. But will he be snared by the FIFA rule for which U.S. Soccer is seeking an exemption for Gedion Zelalem?

"If I have the chance," Manneh told MLSsoccer.com's ExtraTime Radio program on Monday, "I would definitely want to play for the U.S., I definitely want to represent them. I haven't decided if I want to play for the U.S. or if I want to play for Gambia yet. It's a dream up there. But either choice would be great for me. I have family here, I have family in Gambia as well, so it would be great."

Manneh's connection to the United States was the Rush Soccer Club. The Colorado-based club considers itself the largest club in the world with programs across the country and in numerous foreign countries. Gambia Rush has sent players to Rush clubs in the United States, including Manneh, whose mother died when he was 10.

Manneh played first for Georgia Rush and then Texas Rush AJ Auxerre, where he scored 35 goals in 23 games in 2010-11 for its U-16s. Manneh eventually moved to a rival youth club, Lonestar, and then the PDL's Austin Aztex but he was adopted by his family in Austin, the Niccums, leading to his path to citizenship.

Manneh is in his third season with the Caps. He scored 10 goals in his first two seasons and has started all four games for which he's been eligible in 2015. (He was suspended one game by MLS's Disciplinary Committee for his challenge on Aurelien Collin the Orlando City-Vancouver match,)

Manneh might just miss obtaining his citizenship that would make him eligible -- age-wise -- for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but he might not be eligible to play for the USA until after the end of World Cup 2018 qualifying.

FIFA's rule is that a foreign-born player who becomes a citizen must reside continuously for a period of at least five years after reaching his or her 18th birthday to be eligible to play for his new country. In the case of Zelalem, who only turned 18 in January, he'd never pass the test even if he waited five years as he plays for Arsenal in London.

U.S. Soccer has been seeking an exemption for Zelalem on the grounds that his move to the United States from Germany with his Ethiopian parents as a child was not soccer-related and therefore doesn't apply to the spirit of the rule -- to prevent countries from quickly naturalizing players for the only purpose of boosting their national team. The problem is, that it will not be as easy to make that case with Manneh. No, he did not come to the United States to play for the national team, but there was a soccer connection to his move. His five-year wait would end on Dec. 30, 2017.

Gambia's national team has never qualified for the World Cup. Only last year the African confederation banned the Scorpions from international play for age cheating.

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