VALE OF GLAMORGAN, WALES –Kekuta Manneh is back, fit and raring to go.
The 22-year-old's 2016 season was brought to an abrupt halt when he underwent surgery in July on his right foot. But Manneh returned to the training pitch earlier this month with the U.S. national team in California, spending two weeks in his first USMNT camp before flying to Wales for Vancouver Whitecaps FC`s preseason trip.
Manneh admits to being surprised by the level and the tempo of the whole camp. But the “experience and exposure” left him hoping it will be the first of many more to come.
“It was great,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “It was something that I used to get me ready for this [Whitecaps] camp and hopefully get me ready for the season, if I can stay healthy. It was a good experience. I loved it. It was a lot of fun and I met a lot of people. It was an eye-opener for me.”
Manneh now has his US citizenship and his first national team camp under his belt. But he is still awaiting more paperwork from FIFA to finalize his eligibility for match action with his adopted country. Now playing a “waiting game,” he's optimistic that everything will be completed in the near future.
For now, he's just savouring the moment and focusing his attention on Vancouver after two injury-plagued seasons. The winger played 45 minutes in the Caps' 1-0 friendly loss to Cardiff City's Under-23 side on Friday and then 60 minutes in Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Oxford United U-23s.
“It felt good [to be back on the pitch],” Manneh said. “It was hard. It's been a while. It feels good to know that I'm fully back now. This is the fittest I've been for any of the preseasons I've been with the Whitecaps.
“I've always struggled for fitness coming in to the season. I was injured. I've had to play catch-up with my fitness and it takes me a few games, six or seven games in a season, to get me to the levels I need to be.”
The season ahead figures to be pivotal for Manneh – one where he hopes to take the step up to the next level. He feels an injury-free run in the team will develop the consistency and variety in his play that will take him there.
What is 'Caps coach Carl Robinson hoping for?
“An exciting Kekuta,” he said. “He needs to stay healthy. We haven't had a full season out of him based upon injuries. He's come in in the right frame of mind. He's had the US national team camp, which has given him a little step up on some of the players, and he's come in and looks to be enjoying himself.”
Robinson will review his options on Manneh this preseason and is likely to try him out in a variety of roles. Against Cardiff and Oxford, the coach chose to play him as a withdrawn striker behind Erik Hurtado.
“It's a different role for him,” Robinson said. “There was nothing in it. It was strictly to do with getting my players, the first 45 minutes who I wanted to get minutes. He can play there, he can play as a No. 9, he can play as a 10, he can play as an 11 or a 7."
Should Manneh continue to be used as a striker throughout the season, either up top or in a secondary position, it's a role he would relish.
“All I can say is if I play there, I'm going to do my best,” said Manneh. “It's one of my favorite positions to play. I enjoy playing there. If I get the chance to play there, then I'd like to be that guy for the club. Hopefully I get that chance some time this season.”