VANCOUVER, B.C.—The US national team's "Road To Russia" got underway in St. Louis on Friday with a comprehensive 6-1 victory over St. Vincent & the Grenadines in World Cup qualifying. Among Jurgen Klinsmann's squad was one of the newest national team recruits: Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who came on as a second-half substitute to play 26 minutes, officially cap-tying him to the US.
It was the culmination of a lengthy process for Nagbe, and American fans will be pleased to know that he might soon be joined by another exciting Cascadia standout – Vancouver Whitecaps winger Kekuta Manneh.
Manneh, like Nagbe, has been working on his US citizenship application and is expected to complete the process next fall. That will mark the end of a long journey for the 20-year-old speedster, but he hopes it is the start of another one, with the exciting prospect of pulling on the national-team jersey for his adopted home.
"I'm about 10 months away from getting it," Manneh said to MLSsoccer.com. "It's scheduled to come out on Sept. 8, so I'm really excited. Since I've been here, my agent has been in contact with [US Soccer officials], so that it will build interest.
"For me, it's an honor for them to be interested in me and my service. It would be a privilege to play for them."
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Born 1994 in Bakau, Gambia, Manneh made the move the United States in 2010.
Playing initially for the Texas Rush U-16s (based just outside of Houston) in the United States Soccer Development Academy and then Austin-based Lonestar SC the following year at the U-18 level, Manneh immediately fell in love with the country.
At the Rush, team manager LaRhonda Niccum and her husband Eric welcomed Manneh into their family’s home. They eventually adopted him, and he knew that this was where he wanted to make his new home and begin his new life.
"I think for him, it's probably going to be culmination of a journey from Gambia," Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi told MLSsoccer.com. "I would think a great deal of satisfaction as well, given he's from where he was and what his future looked like to having the world at his feet. Anything we can do to make that process easier, then we're happy to do."
Given layers of red tape, there has not been much the 'Caps have been able to do, other than offer support and guidance. But they're there for Manneh if he needs them, as has been the league.
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"I don't think there's a lot the Whitecaps can do," Manneh said. "It's a process that's been laid out that we have to go through, and then the lawyers have been working with MLS. It's a MLS lawyer, so I'm getting help from him in everything that we need to do so that I can get that passport."
Manneh's dream is now very close to becoming a reality, much to the delight of those around him, including the Whitecaps, who have been fully supportive of their player throughout the entire citizenship application process.
"Whatever we've needed to do, we've done it because him being a US citizen, as opposed to not, is obviously beneficial to us," Lenarduzzi said. "And he's a great kid. His story is a wonderful story, and this is just another chapter in his very young life to date."
Part of that support has been making sure that Manneh meets the US residency requirements for citizenship.
That was never an issue when he was playing youth soccer in Texas, then in the PDL with the Austin Aztex, but as soon as Manneh was drafted to play in Canada for Vancouver, things got a little bit more complicated.
Thankfully for all concerned, Vancouver's location meant that there was a perfect solution: Manneh moved to Point Roberts, Washington, an American enclave 23 miles south of Vancouver, bordered by Canada on one side and water on three.
Manneh spends at least three days a week in Point Roberts, driving to Vancouver for training. That sets up the unusual scenario of international travel, just to train or to see teammates and friends.
"It is very weird," Manneh said. "It can be a long drive at times, when the traffic is bad in the morning. But it's nice. I love Point Roberts, to be honest. It's very quiet, and I get a lot more sleep there than I do in Vancouver, so that's a big plus.
"It is a bit weird coming from a different country to come and train here in Vancouver in Canada, but it's great. It's all for a good cause, so it's exciting."
Getting American citizenship means a lot to Manneh, both on a personal and a professional level. But his desire to play for the US hasn't stopped the Gambia from courting Manneh to come and play for the Scorpions.
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The winger has previously been involved with the Gambia at the U-20 level, but right now Manneh does not know how things will play out with the US program, so he is keeping his options open and not ruling anything out.
"It's just that I told them I need a bit of time," Manneh said. "They always send me an invitation every game they have. My response has been the same: I need options. I need to get my passport and then decide what I need to do, if I want to play for Gambia or the US. I need to see what the right fit is for me, so that's the delay for me.
"That's why I haven't really made my decision, but it would be an honor for me to play for either of those teams. It's the national team. Everybody wants to represent it, but either of those would be great. I think it would be silly on my part to rush right now and go and play for Gambia when I can have a chance to play for the USA."
For Whitecaps fans, Manneh's citizenship desires actually heavily benefit the club since he can't move to Euruope, or elsewhere, until after everything in the citizenship process is completed in September 2016.
"Yes, it would definitely affect it if I were to move," Manneh said. "I'm a bit short of days, that's why I'm going to Point Roberts every day, so that I can make those days up. So there's no way, no chance, of me leaving Vancouver until I get it."