The phrase, “He’s getting there,” has become a staple under head coach Gregg Berhalter. Sometimes it means a player will be ready for the weekend, while other times it could be weeks until said player is ready to play.
In the case of Kekuta Manneh, it’s been the latter.
“He’s getting there,” Berhalter said of Manneh on Tuesday. “The work that he’s been putting in has been tremendous and we want to get him involved.”
Manneh was acquired by Columbus Crew SC at the end of March, but the winger is yet to see the field for the Black & Gold going on a month now. And it’s not as if Manneh missed time before joining the team.
“I was training with the national team so I started earlier than everyone else pretty much,” Manneh told Massive Report this week. “I had a good preseason with (the Vancouver Whitecaps). We went to Wales, we came back to Portland. It was good. I played a few preseason games, I started against New York in the (CONCACAF Champions League) both games and I started two MLS game. It was good.”
So what has kept Manneh off the field? Despite his playing time with the Whitecaps, it’s about fitness.
“We’re taking it day by day with Kektua,” Berhalter said after Manneh arrived. “We want to make sure he’s right and prepared. We did notice a little bit of a difference in his stamina compared to our guys, so it’s something we’re working on.”
Because he played in all three MLS games, and then some, for the Whitecaps before the trade, some Crew SC fans have wondered why he hasn’t seen the field yet.
“They had a standard as well there,” Manneh said of the Whitecaps. “If you didn’t hit the mark, you were not going to be able to be involved. So I hit that standard.
“I came here, it’s different. Obviously the coaches felt I needed to catch up a little bit.”
Berhalter has always asked a lot of his players in terms of their work rate. In his possession-based system, Columbus players must be able to interchange positions or make overlapping runs often. There’s a lot of movement that requires plenty of fitness.
As Manneh did not take part in Crew SC’s preseason training regimen, he was not up to the fitness mark needed for the Black & Gold.
“I see the way they play and even in training today the intensity that they want,” Manned explained. “It’s very challenging and you have to be fit to be able to do that week in and we out to be able to play on the weekend as well.”
Since arriving, fitness has certainly been a focus for Manneh, but he’s also learning a new style. The Whitecaps play one way, but it’s not as specific as what Berhalter requires of his players in order to perform.
While the likes of Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay make it look easy at times, these two have been doing it for years. Even rookie Niko Hansen had a full preseason and then some before getting on the field.
“It’s different than the way Vancouver plays and the way they do things here, I just have to get adjusted to that,” Manneh said. “They’re very detailed in the positioning and they do things very, very differently than they do in Vancouver and I think it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Neither the fitness or the system are easy to adapt to quickly.
Following training sessions where the winger works to understand the necessary intricacies of formations and connect with his teammates, Manneh is typically the last player off the field after doing additional fitness work.
Before speaking with Massive Report for this article, Manneh requested a few minutes to catch his breath after finishing quite a few wind sprints (we of course obliged).
“It has been exhausting,” a still sweating Manneh admitted. “But that’s the requirements.”
There’s been no complaints from the 22 year old, despite not playing in three weeks since joining Crew SC. But his hard work is not going unnoticed by his head coach.
“I can imagine it would be frustrating for a player to get traded and have not contributed yet,” Berhalter admitted. “Having said that, his mindset has been great. He’s been working hard and doing everything we ask.”
This consistent effort to do what the coaches request and get the fitness levels where they need to be was rewarded, in one sense, last Saturday. For the first time since he left Vancouver, Manneh made the 18-man game day roster.
“Being in the squad, in the 18 is definitely encouraging,” he said. “It’s telling me that I’m getting closer to making my debut.”
Had the second half scoreline been different, Manneh may have made that debut against Toronto FC. But sitting at 2-1 and looking to shut the game down for the second half, Berhalter elected for a player he trusts in Finlay and a defender in Josh Williams as substitutes.
If Manneh is frustrated with his lack of playing time since arriving in Columbus, he isn’t showing it. The winger is in his fifth year as a professional and understands how this game works.
“It’s just for me, a matter of time when Coach thinks I’m ready,” Manneh said of Berhalter. “It’s all up to him and he makes the decisions. So until then, I’m just going to put my head down and just do what I’m told and hopefully I’ll get the chance soon.”
Given he made the bench last week, it’s likely fans will see Manneh in the near future. But if anyone were to ask Berhalter, they would likely get the same response.
“He’s getting there.”