There have been so many moments for Kekuta Manneh in the last four years in which it seemed like things were just about to come together into a complete, unified package. The 4-3 win at Toronto FC last year? Yes, absolutely. The 1-0 win at LA Galaxy in the summer of 2015? My god, they had no shot at stopping him, or even slowing him down. The first three months of the 2014 season, in which the then 19-year-old seemed to evolve from "talent" to "player"?
Yes. Absolutely yes.
But every burst of effervescent, uncontainable production was punctuated with an injury of one sort or another. The most recent was last summer when Manneh – who had five goals and two assists in his previous nine games – limped off just before halftime against Colorado. He didn't play again in 2016, and on Thursday he was traded to Columbus for Tony Tchani, $225,000 of TAM and $75,000 worth of GAM, as well as an undisclosed portion of sell-on rights and future considerations.
Manneh's played a bit in 2017, which included a goal vs. the Red Bulls in CONCACAF Champions League play. But he hasn't looked himself, really, and he lost his starting job on the wing, and when he was played as a second forward or No. 10, it really didn't work:
Nonetheless I'm not sure, if I were the 'Caps, I'd have been eager to see Manneh go. According to Opta, they scored 1.7 goals per game when he played last year and just 1.0 when he didn't. They claimed 1.4 points per game last year when he played, and just 1.0 when he didn't. There are correlation/causality issues you can have with those numbers, but I still think you can credibly argue that before his injury, the only more influential winger in the league in 2016 was Montreal's MVP candidate, Ignacio Piatti.
At the same time, the 'Caps have felt that they needed to beef up their central midfield for a while, and thus enters Tchani. The Cameroon international (he's also played for the USMNT, but is now cap-tied to the land of his birth) is a two-way terror in central midfield when locked in, capable of playing as a No. 6 but at his best as a No. 8. He also spent time as a No. 10 last year for Crew SC when Federico Higuain was injured, but I can't imagine that's what Carl Robinson et al have planned.
And look: Tchani has fallen out of the Columbus rotation for whatever reason, but on paper is a snug fit at BC Place. When the 'Caps were rolling in 2014 and the first part of 2015, it was based off of their ability to get into transition via their deep-lying distributors. One was since-departed DP playmaker Pedro Morales, and the other was since-departed box-to-box midfielder Gershon Koffie.
Tchani's not a Morales-type playmaker, and will almost certainly fill the "Koffie" role as a destructive, box-to-box defensive force on one side and a tempo-setting fulcrum on the other. He spreads the ball to the wings early, habitually, and accurately, and is among the league leaders in both long-balls per game and long-ball completion percentage. These aren't dumb, "hoof it up front!" long-balls, mind you, but strategic diagonals designed to shift the defense from side to side and open gaps that the attack can hit.
In theory Vancouver can plug him into central midfield next to Matias Laba, wind him up, let him go and see the whole team improve. I'm just not sure it's going to work that smoothly since the cost of getting Tchani was their most goal-dangerous winger. There has to be another move coming from the 'Caps, and they now have the GAM and TAM to do it.
Back to Columbus: They suddenly have a logjam of options on the wing. Internationals Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay are the incumbent starting wingers, and rookie Niko Hansen was impressive in his debut. Dilly Duka has been a useful MLS player for a long time, and youngster Cristian Martinez has already been capped twice by Panama.
So my initial instinct upon hearing of this swap was that Columbus have finally decided to move Meram into the No. 10 role, which makes sense given his productivity as a set-up man. He had 13 assists last season, was top five in expected assists, and is No. 1 on that list in 2017:
Two caveats: Meram has played four games thus far, while most on that list have played three. And second is that Higuain – who had been fading as he ages – played his best game in close to a year last week as a No. 10. Thus it is not a given that acquiring Manneh was designed to push Meram into the central playmaker role even if that seems like the natural play.
And if that's the case then I think it's a fair bet Columbus are going to continue to be active on the trade market. So keep an eye on this space.