US citizenship moves Whitecaps' Kekuta Manneh closer to USMNT eligibility

CARSON, Calif – The news broke on Wednesday at the US national team's January camp: Vancouver Whitecaps FC attacker Kekuta Manneh had received American citizenship and now is a step closer to being eligible for national team play.

Born in Gambia, the 22-year-old Manneh will require a waiver from FIFA to be officially cleared to play for the USA since eligibility rules require players to have lived in the country they represent for five years after their 18th birthday. The FIFA waiver would expedite his eligibility, but citizenship was still an important step on his journey.

“It’s been a long process,” Manneh said after practice, “We've been doing it for years. It finally came true. I’m really excited, happy; it’s good news for the family.”

The speedy Manneh battled a foot injury in the latter half of the 2016 MLS season, and thus came up short of his career highs of seven goals and six assists from 2015. His desire to play for the United States has been known for some time now, and the plan is that he will join fellow young attackers Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes as part of the next generation in attack.

Getting back on the field after such a long time out with injury was also a relief for Manneh.

“It’s been a while," he said. "It’s good to be out here with the rest of the guys, looking forward to the rest of the camp.”

As to what the US hope to get from Manneh, head coach Bruce Arena was conscious of both Manneh's recovery process and wanting to fold the youngster into the national team environment.

“Good young player,” said Arena. “He’s returning from an injury so I don’t think we’re going to expect too much from him early. Hopefully he can get through the next week healthy and start showing what he’s capable of doing.”

Manneh isn’t the only player in the January camp whose FIFA status is in flux. Arena also brought in 30-year-old Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, fresh off an impressive 2016 MLS Cup performance. Manneh is closer to being cleared to play than Frei with Tuesday’s news, but Arena didn’t seem concerned about Frei’s status.

The 'keeper was born in Switzerland but has lived in the US since the late 1990s.

“That one I can’t go into much detail,” said Arena, “because I’m sure I’ll end up putting my foot in my mouth and be wrong, but I think if you hold a Swiss passport, the ability to become a US citizen is a pretty rapid exercise.”