Standing in the locker room on Saturday with reporters around him, Kektua Manneh started to laugh.
Coming from the locker next to his was the repeated words from Justin Meram: “Sub of the year.”
Manneh checked in for Meram with 21 minutes remaining and the score tied at one and scored his first goal for Columbus Crew SC just one minute later on his second touch of the match. Two minutes after that, the winger delivered a cross that resulted in the third goal in a 4-1 win over the Montreal Impact.
While Meram was happy with the change this time, he was not earlier in the year when head coach Gregg Berhalter elected to take him out of the game after just 40 minutes.
Berhalter has admitted to some questionable substitutions this year for the Black & Gold, but on Saturday night, he got it right.
“We thought that based on the opponent, [Hassoun] Camara’s a guy that we’ve put Cedric [Mabwati] in in the past. We had good results putting him in and we wanted to get after him one vs. one,” Berhalter explained of the change. “But also we thought that on the day that it was a time to get Justin off. We were looking at just the effectiveness of the game and we thought, ‘Okay, now we can introduce Kekuta, who can potentially be more dangerous on that side.’”
The idea was to put speed on the left to challenge Camara and it worked.
Playmaker Federico Higuain found Manneh with a direct pass, and although his first touch lost the ball, it ultimately fell to teammate Ola Kamara whose touch found the winger for the easy finish.
For Manneh, who just a week ago thought his season might be over before it had really got going, this was a special moment.
“It was good,” the winger said postgame. “I have been searching for that since I’ve been here, day one. Like I said, I am here to help this team achieve their goals and today I played my part. I came in, helped the team and we were fortunate enough to win the game. It was good to get back to winning ways.”
It wasn’t just the goal either. Two minutes after he put Crew SC up one, Manneh provided the assist on Kamara’s goal that gave the Black & Gold a two-goal cushion.
Again, it was his speed to track down a ball in the corner and then a good cross into a dangerous are with his weaker foot that found Kamara for the volley finish.
But substitutions weren’t done having an impact on the game’s final score.
Forward Adam Jahn, who had yet to register a goal or an assist in 12 games played heading into this contest, checked in for Kamara in the 87th minute. With his first touch, he headed the ball into the path of Higuain, who scored his second of the night and sealed the win for Columbus.
“It was a relief, personally and for the team,” Jahn said. “That put the game away. Getting a point was awesome. I’m just happy to do that.
“That’s what we want out of our subs and I think we can all agree we weren’t doing a good enough job up until this point. So, when Kekuta came in we turned it around. It was kind of infectious. So for us subs, build off this and next week do it again.”
While these two players are happy to finally statistically contribute for the Black & Gold, seeing his substitutes make an impact for the first time in a while is relieving for Berhalter as well.
For a team that entered the match with only five goal scorers on the season, it’s nice to get contributions from another player, Manneh, and see Jahn make an impact in his limited minutes.
“I thought it was great. I thought it was great that Kekuta was able to have the impact,” Berhalter said.
“All of the credit has to go to those two guys for executing. Kekuta is a guy that has been waiting for an opportunity to make such an impact like he did today. And Adam, he’s been fighting the whole year to have this type of impact as well. So I’m proud of both of those guys and they deserve a ton of credit.”