VANCOUVER, BC – When Martin Rennie called Kekuta Manneh’s name early in the second half September 28 against Real Salt Lake, the 18-year-old Gambian turned to Daigo Kobayashi and joined him in a heartfelt embrace before running onto the pitch.
At first glance, it was simply the sight of a young rookie excited to be making his first appearance in nearly four weeks – in front of a sold-out crowd at BC Place, no less. But there was more to it than that.
Over the last several months, Manneh said he and Kobayashi have become “best friends.”
“He’s been really inspirational for me,” Manneh told whitecapsfc.com. “He’s been one of the guys I talk to a lot, giving me advice and stuff. He’s just a really good guy and he’s been great to me.”
MLS Insider: Kekuta Manneh's journey from Gambia
Despite the fact that both players are in the midst of their first Major League Soccer season, Manneh and Kobayashi aren’t the usual pair.
Manneh, 18, is an always animated youngster. He grew up in Gambia before moving to the United States in 2010, which explains his seasoned English.
Kobayashi, 30, is a more reserved veteran. The Japanese midfielder has spent most of his career in the J-League, but also enjoyed stints in Norway and Greece. This is his first year in North America.
The unlikely pair started talking during training camp and appeared in a few preseason matches together, but not surprisingly their relationship took a little time to blossom.
“When he first came here, I don’t know, I wasn’t sure if he was that good at English,” Manneh laughed. “But I got it wrong. He’s actually really good. We have good conversations.”
Kobayashi seemed to have a different view on their interactions.
“We talk just crazy things, easy things,” Kobayashi told whitecapsfc.com. “Not talk so much, just jokes.”
“He’s just laughing all the time,” Manneh added. “And that’s what I like … to be around people who are joyful and fun.”
It’s not hard to see that Manneh and Kobayashi have developed a good understanding of one another – off the pitch and on it.
Manneh nets historic hat-trick in 4-1 win over Seattle
The duo combined brilliantly in last week’s historic 4-1 win over Seattle Sounders FC. Kobayashi set up two of Manneh’s three goals on the night. First, he sent the youngster in on a breakaway with an alert header and then Manneh capped off his hat-trick through a well-played one-two with Kobayashi.
“It was just simple passes,” Kobayashi said of his two assists. “He’s a good player … very good. I didn’t do anything special.”
“He has good speed, technique … he has everything,” Kobayashi continued. “Two or three years, he can be world class. I think so.”
Last week’s Cascadia derby was just the third game Manneh and Kobayashi have started together this season. The other two were Vancouver’s regular season opener against Toronto FC and a 1-1 draw with Portland Timbers in August.
Still, Manneh said he and Kobayashi often play together in training and have a natural understanding on the pitch – a sentiment echoed by the ‘Caps manager.
“Also with Camilo, I think they all linked up very well,” Rennie told reporters earlier this week. “They’re all naturally good soccer players, they look out for each other and they found each other well with passing and their movement. Obviously, they’ve only just started playing together but there’s a natural link-up there so hopefully that’s something we can keep building on.”
Their relationship off the pitch continues to build as well.
Before and after games, Manneh often gets together with Kobayashi and his Japanese roommate Jun Marques Davidson. Sometimes, they go out for Japanese or Korean food, though Kobayashi was quick to point out that Manneh isn’t a fan of sushi.
Kobayashi said Manneh isn’t like most of his friends, but it’s hard not to like him.
“He’s a really good guy,” Kobayashi said. “Everybody loves him. He’s not shy … he just talks and talks. He’s like my younger brother.”
Vancouver Whitecaps FC wrap-up the 2013 MLS regular season on Sunday, October 27, when they host Colorado Rapids in a crucial match at BC Place. The final home match of the regular season will also be Fan Appreciation Night, with a number of activations to thank fans for their continued support. Tickets remain available at ticketmaster.ca/whitecapsfc.