PORTLAND, Ore. – The Vancouver Whitecaps find themselves in a wholly unique predicament heading into the 2014 season: They are the first team in MLS history that will be forced to do without the reigning Golden Boot winner the following season.
Add to that one of the youngest squads in the league at an average age of 24.3 years – even with the addition of 28-year-old Chilean playmaker Pedro Morales – and a rookie head coach in Carl Robinson, and it’s no surprise that fans may see a whole host of young and new faces stepping up for the Whitecaps in 2014, especially going forward.
“The onus [to score] is on a lot of young guys in this team and in this squad that I’m developing and they’ll get their opportunities this year,” Robinson told reporters last week. “It’s down to them, then, to take that chance. We need goals from all areas – obviously losing 20-odd goals is not great but we deal with it and I’m confident that the group will score as many goals as needed this year to help us be successful.”
There’s no shortage of young attackers to take this mantle on the ‘Caps roster – from 2012 Rookie of the Year runner-up Darren Mattocks to freakishly athletic winger Erik Hurtado to Canadian international Russell Teibert, not to mention the steady stream of draft picks and Homegrown signings that have been flowing into the Vancouver camp over the past few months.
But the youngster who’s made the most indelible impression recently might be second-year attacker Kekuta Manneh, who finished 2013 by scoring four goals in the Whitecaps' final three games, including a memorable hat trick on the road at Seattle and bounced back from a preseason injury to feature in the preseason-ending Rose City Invitational last week.
So is the Gambian native primed for a breakout year?
“I hope so, I really do,” Robinson added. “He was great towards the end of last year, but I knew he could do that at the start of the year. He was given the opportunity and he’ll get opportunities this year and it’s important he takes it and builds from last year because the second season is always hard for any young player and I’ve got to make sure that me and my coaches are looking after him, protecting him, but he gets the opportunities.”
Manneh, 19, has certainly set a high standard for himself this year. Season-ending streak included, he totaled six goals and two assists in just 764 minutes as a rookie after being selected fourth overall in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. He's as excited as ever to show everyone what his next step will be, but he knows it’s not all up to him.
“First of all, I want to be a team player this year,” Manneh told MLSsoccer.com. “I want to be the player that people look up to this year, I want to score goals, I want to be the star player on the team. That being said, [with] all the help of my teammates, everybody will achieve what they want individually, but I definitely want to score goals for the team, I want to score lots of goals.”
And though the Whitecaps will certainly be seeing a lot of their younger attackers as the season rolls on, equally important will be scoring contributions from all over the field, a talking point reinforced by the team throughout the preseason.
“I think it will come down to collectiveness as a team – I think we will score goals from everywhere on the field and that’s the expectation the coaches and the coaching staff have for us this year,” Manneh explained. “They want everybody to score goals and I feel like the attacking team we have this year, I feel like the attacking team we have this year we will score a lot of goals.”
Echoed veteran striker Kenny Miller, to MLSsoccer.com: “It’ll be down to the strikers to chip in a little bit more, it’ll be down to the midfielders and defenders to chip in a little bit more. To be honest looking at the way the team’s going to be set up, looking at the players, looking at the players the coaches are bringing in, they’re exciting attacking players with a lot of creativity, so I believe as long as we’re creating chances, the players up top will be putting them away.”
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Miller will also be one of a key group of veterans making sure the team’s youngsters don’t stray too far. Though the squad itself boasts a low average age, players like the Scotsman (whose contract with the 'Caps is up in June), US World Cup veteran Jay DeMerit, and former English Premier League midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker, are there not just for their well-documented talent, but to provide a helping hand, not to mention an example, during the inevitable ups and downs that come with a young player’s career.
“To be honest, when I was that age, you look at the [veteran guys] and how they train and how they prepare for games and obviously when you are working with guys in your position who’ve got more experience you look at how they go about and do their job and try to take things from their game and implement them in your own game,” Miller explained. “It’s always about learning, so hopefully these young lads are looking at our experienced lads and looking to take the good traits of their game and fit them into their own game.
“[Robinson’s] looking a lot to the older guys – the Jay DeMerits, the Nigel Reo-Cokers, the Andy O’Briens to help the younger lads through. If we can do that, obviously it’s working on the field, things are going well, then it’ll be great.”