Before the Twitter hate storm hits my feed, let me say this: I think that Kekuta Manneh is a young, talented player who has the potential to become a very good player for the Whitecaps and the MLS.
Having said that, now hear me out…or, read me out. Young Kekuta is undeniably electrifying. He is fast, he is skillful and he has outstanding poise inside the box. That is fantastic. After a few impactful and inspiring performances (mostly at home), pundits and fans alike called for the youngster to have a chance in the starting eleven. I did not. You can say, “Hey man, easy for you to say in retrospect”. That would be a fair point but I did not start writing for Whitecaps XI until now so you will have to take my word for it.
The injury to Kenny Miller opened up the perfect opportunity for Manneh to get a crack as a starter in a tough road match in Portland. It was his second go after starting the season opener versus Toronto back in March. The result? Well, the brilliant performance we were hoping to see was not so brilliant, resulting in a quiet exit at the 65th minute for Erik Hurtado. Who, by the way, gave what I would argue was probably his best game thus far as a Whitecap.
Kekuta was, for the most part, lost in the left flank throughout his entire 65+ minutes. He lost almost all his battles and did not show the expected spark needed to create meaningful goal scoring chances. There are a few reasons that can be thrown around to explain this. The blue and white forward lines did not really click all game long. Moreover, the venue, occasion, and opponent certainly did not make things easy.
To this list, I would add a couple more reasons. I would argue that at this point in his career, the best game situation for Manneh to succeed is coming on with 30 minutes to go. When he comes on late in the game as a power sub, Kekuta has a revolutionary effect with his pace against the tired legs in the opposing back line. When he starts, it is easier for the back line to dictate the pace of the game, keep him in check and eventually minimize his contributions.
Also, let’s not forget the “Miller effect”. I am convinced that with Kenny Miller on the pitch, Manneh would have more room to make his runs because Miller is able to create space for both himself and others due to his impeccable off-the-ball skills. Obviously, in this case, it was Miller’s injury that opened the spot for Manneh in the starting eleven so there is no way to know, at this point, how much of a difference Miller would have made in Kekuta’s game.
All this being said, it is not all gloom and doom. When comparing Manneh’s two starts so far this season, there has been obvious progress. His defensive IQ and tactical positioning has improved substantially and, perhaps more importantly, he looks physically stronger so it is more difficult for his opponents to manhandle him than it was a few short months ago.
I want to make it clear that I do not believe that Martin Rennie made the wrong decision in giving Kekuta the shoulder tap in Portland last Saturday given the circumstances and roster he had available. What I am saying is that based on what we saw, Kekuta Manneh’s best contributions will continue to come as a power sub for the time being. The potential, however, is there and if he keeps working hard and listening to the team’s veterans his future will be bright.
If you think that he deserves another shot as a starter before we come to judgment, I am willing to meet you in the middle – if Miller is still down on August 10th versus San Jose, let’s give him another shot at BC Place and we can chat about it later. Deal?