Frustration builds for Kekuta Manneh: "I'm not used to being left behind"

OBETZ, Ohio – The honeymoon phase of the relationship between Gregg Berhalter and Columbus Crew SC’s newest player, Kekuta Manneh, did not last long.

When the club sent a significant haul to the Vancouver Whitecaps for the speedy attacker at the end of March, compliments flew from both sides. The Crew head coach said Manneh would “immediately improve the team” and expected him to “challenge for minutes right away.” Manneh, meanwhile, said he had “admired [Crew SC] from afar” and that it was “exciting” to play for such an attacking team.

But in nearly a month since moving to Columbus, Manneh has yet to see the field for Crew SC. And despite making the gameday 18 in the previous week, Manneh was left to train in Ohio as the club flew to New Jersey to play the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, where they dropped a 2-0 decision.

That training prompted Manneh to tweet the now-deleted hashtag “#rockbottom” from the team’s training facility, adding to concerns about his future in Columbus.

Manneh said the tweet was a result of “one of the hardest sessions” he’s had as a professional that had him mentally and physically exhausted. He said he got “frustrated” and that people “see it differently” than how he meant it. But he admitted that it was a difficult moment for him.

“I’m used to traveling with the team, whether I’m going to be involved in the game or not, and I’m not used to being left behind,” he said. “So it’s hard; I’m not going to lie. I’m going through a tough time right now. But it’s a professional environment. You don’t control anything; all you control is how hard you work and your performance. Maybe it’s not been at the level that I need to be at, and that’s on me as well.”

Berhalter, who had previously pointed to Manneh’s lack of fitness as an issue, on Tuesday indicated that it was his performances in training that now needed to improve. And Manneh also dismissed those fitness questions. 

“I don’t think fitness is a problem for me,” he said. “Do they play a bit differently? Yes. Does it require a bit more running than maybe I’m used to? Yes. But I think I’m 90-minute fit to play any game anywhere in the world. I’ve been fit to play since I’ve been here.”

Manneh said he doesn’t believe Berhalter trusts him yet. He said it’s the “belief and the trust” that he needs to build with his new coach in order to break through. And for Berhalter, that time may be nearing.

“He’s getting close,” Berhalter said. “With him ... there’s moments where you see, ‘OK, he’s getting to where we need him to be.’ I’m pretty sure he’s a guy who can help this team. Watching his skill set, it’s about getting him in the right moment to do so.”

Berhalter and Manneh have talked 1-on-1 multiple times, so the attacker says he knows generally where he stands. But at this point, he said he’s simply in a waiting game.

“It’s patience,” Manneh said. “I’ve been playing straight through for the last three years and now I’ve come here and it’s not been the same. So having that patience has been tough. It’s hard. Every player will tell you he wants to be on the field. … I’m getting eager to get on the field, and hopefully that happens soon.”

In the meantime, Berhalter said it’s his job to “judge him like every other player,” and said that Manneh has the same opportunity to work through the pecking order as anyone else. And while Berhalter praised Manneh’s work ethic, he still believes the expensive acquisition is behind his peers.

“To be fair, his attitude has been great,” the Crew coach said. “I can imagine that it’s frustrating that you get traded to a team and the team wants you and you still haven’t seen the field. I can completely understand that. But for us, we’re analyzing the body of work in training and we’re saying, ‘Is that good enough to be on the field?’ So far, it hasn’t been.”

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