Columbus Crew SC played their only competitive match to date against in-state rivals FC Cincinnati in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. FC Cincy beat the Crew, amid a magical run to the semifinals largely played in front of raucous crowds at Nippert Stadium.
Those memorable games put the then-USL side FC Cincy on the map to the casual fan as well as then-Crew winger Kekuta Manneh. It was that game in which the seeds were first sown for Manneh's eventual move to Cincinnati, which came after two unsuccessful moves abroad in 2018 for Manneh -- first with Liga MX's Pachuca then Switzerland's FC St. Gallen -- and a successful MLS expansion bid from Cincinnati.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for me to be a part of this expansion team," Manneh told MLSsoccer.com on Friday. "It was something I’ve always wanted to be a part of. When I was in Columbus we played them, it was exciting. The atmosphere was great and the fans were unbelievable. In the back of my mind, if they had a chance to come to MLS, it’d be great for the city and fans. Having the opportunity to be a part and it was something I couldn’t pass on.”
Manneh's move to FC Cincy was made official last week as the 24-year-old returns to MLS, where he made his name. After five seasons in MLS between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Crew, with 26 goals and 15 assists in 120 appearances (71 starts), Manneh decided to continue his career abroad after the 2017 season.
But last year was a difficult one for the winger, who found playing time hard to come by with Pachuca and St. Gallen.
“It was frustrating, but it was a good experience as well," Manneh said. "I learned a lot from that, even though it didn’t go according to plan, I enjoyed my stay in all of those places.
“I’m not sure [why it didn't work out], to be honest. I gave it everything I had," Manneh added. "People have different opinions than you and they liked other people over me. I gave everything I had and it wasn’t enough, but I did my best. Sometimes, things don’t work out the way you want them to and I find it subjective."
Despite a less than ideal year split in Mexico and Switzerland, Manneh was a wanted man when FC Cincy came calling. But they weren't the only club in the league vying for his services.
“Yes, [I had offers in MLS]," Manneh said. "Well, first of all my team in Switzerland didn’t want to let me go but the general manager and the coach were very flexible and were looking out for the player’s interest. I did have a few offers from MLS, but Cincinnati’s was the one that stood out to me.”
One key reason was Cincy head coach Alan Koch, who was head coach of Whitecaps FC 2 when Manneh was starring for the first team.
“[Koch] was a big part of it, I wanted to play for someone that knows who I am," Manneh said. "I’m sure he believes in me… so when they approached me it was an easy decision.”
After convincing Manneh to choose the expansion side, they still needed to acquire his MLS rights from the Crew. The club sent a package of allocation money for the player that could rise to $400,000 should incentives be met, as a piece of business before the clubs take their Hell is Real rivalry to MLS.
If Manneh can get back in form as he believes he can while with his new club, he hopes the door isn't closed on his career with the US national team. After gaining citizenship in 2016, Manneh got his first call up to a national team camp in 2018, though has yet to make his debut.
“It was one of the things that made the decision easy to come back, I needed to be playing to get that opportunity [with the USMNT]," Manneh said. "Last year it was difficult for me because I didn’t play a lot of games, it was difficult to get a shot with the national team. Coming back here, when I get my chance hopefully I take it because a good year with Cincinnati will help me get back with the national team and hopefully make my debut in the near future."