SIRK’S NOTEBOOK: Manneh, sub of the year

As Kekuta Manneh quietly answered questions at his locker following his heroic one-goal, one-assist performance off the bench in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Montreal, locker neighbor Justin Meram kept talking over him with one simple message that he repeated over and over: “Sub of the year.”

After coming over in a trade with Vancouver, battling to find playing time, struggling with injuries — including a recent injury that he feared would end his season but thankfully turned out the be just a foot sprain — all of which created a high level of frustration in general, the 22-year-old Manneh entered the game in the 69th minute. He scored in the 70th minute to give Crew SC the lead. Then he assisted on an Ola Kamara goal in the 72nd minute to blow the game wide open. The Black & Gold’s fastest man had an even faster impact on the game.

“I thought when Kekuta came in, the speed of the game changed,” said Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. “We needed a higher speed and we were able to get that.”

Immediately after entering the game, Manneh was on the receiving end of a ridiculous juggle-and-volley long ball from Federico Higuain. Although momentarily dispossessed, Manneh found the net when Ola Kamara backheeled the loose ball to the waiting substitute, who slotted it home on the ground past a sprawling defense. It was a calm finish and it gave Columbus the lead.

“It was nice,” Manneh said of coming off the bench and scoring. “It was a good play by Ola. That’s why I was so excited to come here because of all of these guys being selfless and they are very good players.”

Rather than take a bow for his own achievement, Manneh kneeled on the field and bowed to God, giving tribute on the final night of Ramadan. He was soon engulfed in a prolonged huddle of supportive teammates that included every single player except for goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who was a hundred yards away. His teammates made their joy over Manneh’s success abundantly clear.

“It was an emotional moment,” said defender Josh Williams. “Harry [Afful], Artur, and I were the furthest away, but I knew when Kekuta scored, that was a big moment for him and the team. He’s a big part of our team. I remember yelling at Artur and Harry, saying, ‘Get your [butt] over here!’ and everyone joined in that huddle. It was a big moment. Kekuta’s always got a good attitude and he’s always joking around with everybody. This team is really tight-knit. It really is a brotherhood. You can feel it. We had somebody who was struggling for minutes and struggling just to get on the board, so to see him come in and score, that means a lot to all of us.”

Manneh certainly felt the love.

“They were happy,” he said. “I’ve gone through a lot with injuries and have struggled a little bit. You could see that everyone was happy and I was relieved to get that monkey off my back and score that goal. It’s a team sport and it’s incredible to see the whole team come together after I scored that goal and to be happy for me. They were very encouraging and have been like that since day one. It’s very hard to come into a new environment and feel comfortable, and since I got here, I’ve always been comfortable. They welcomed me with open arms. It’s good to be here.”

As far as Berhalter is concerned, Manneh’s heroics were a deserved reward for a player who has put in the work.

“For him to hang in there, there was frustration that he wasn’t getting the amount of playing time that he wanted,” Berhalter said, “but the frustration didn’t affect the attitude and that’s the important thing. We want guys to be frustrated if they’re not playing, but then you have to show it on the training pitch, you have to want to improve, you have to address your weaknesses, strengthen your strengths. All of that you need to do and he did that. He’s been doing that. It’s no surprise that he gets a chance to be in a position like this because he’s been working really hard.”

*****

How crazy were Manneh’s accomplishments on Saturday? Thanks to the ever-helpful Rick Lawes at MLS HQ and the fine folks at Elias Sports Bureau, I am able to share some league-wide answers with you now, and I will have even more club-specific info in a separate Notebook in the coming days.

Manneh became the 49th player in MLS history to score within one official scoresheet minute after entering the match as a substitute. The most recent instance prior to this season was D.C. United’s Alhaji Kamara, who entered during the 85th minute and scored in the 86th minute, finding the net just 33 seconds into his MLS debut on May 27, 2016.

And let’s not forget about Manneh’s assist!

Here’s a fun factoid that Lawes discovered when digging for answers to my various questions. On April 27, 2013, Manneh subbed on for Vancouver in the 54th minute in Dallas. In the 72nd minute, he scored his very first goal for the Whitecaps. In the 75th minute, he assisted on a goal. Fast forward four years, and on Saturday, he scored his first Crew SC goal in the 70th minute and then registered an assist in the 72nd minute. That means that for both of his professional clubs thus far, Kekuta Manneh has followed his first goal with his first assist within three minutes and two minutes, respectively.

The kid has a pattern. A mindboggling pattern.

Manneh also set an MLS record for fastest to score a goal AND deliver an assist after entering a match as substitute. He did it in three scoresheet minutes, whereas the previous record had been six scoresheet minutes, shared by LA’s Alan Gordon in 2008 and New England’s Chad Barrett in 2013.

We can narrow Manneh’s record down even further. In elapsed time, it took Manneh just 2:26 between stepping on the field and filling both the goal and assist columns on the scoresheet. That’s going to be a tough record to break.

Meram called Manneh “The Sub of the Year.” On Saturday night, in terms of instant offense, he may very well have been “The Sub of MLS History.”

Questions? Comments? As blown away by that Lawes-unearthed oddity as I am? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk
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