MLS has been looking for a bonafide young star virtually ever since its founding, and there have been no shortage of highly hyped teens with Juan Agudelo probably being the most recent example. Some of these players have actually panned out reasonably well, but that usually means coming into their own overseas.
Kekuta Manneh could prove to be an exception. The 18-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps forward became the youngest player in MLS history to score a hat trick on Wednesday, doing so against his team's biggest rivals and in front the kind of crowd that often swallows up young players.
What was remarkable about Manneh's hat trick, was just how easy he made it look in what should have been a very intimidating situation. After playing as a wide midfielder for most of the season, Manneh received just his fourth start of the season in a game the Whitecaps absolutely had to win in order to retain any hopes for the playoffs. That it was on the road against the Seattle Sounders and being witnessed by nearly 40,000 fans only made it more impressive.
Manneh got his first goal in the 12th minute, taking a pass from Daigo Kobayashi, racing past Sounders defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and cooly slotting his shot past Michael Gspurning. His second goal was similar in that he used his speed to get behind the Sounders defense and again looked like a much more experienced player as he beat Gspurning.
The final goal, which took the heart of an assassin, he actually nutmegged Gspurning after beating the offside trap on a 1-2 with Kobayashi at the top of the penalty area.
After the game, the soft-spoken Gambian actually said he was more nervous talking to reporters than he was on the field. He also said that if he hadn't been pulled off in the 72nd minute that he would have scored "one or a couple" more goals.
While it's tempting to say this performance came out of nowhere, the reality is that it's not necessarily a huge surprise to anyone who's been paying attention. Despite not receiving much hype prior to the MLS SuperDraft, the Whitecaps traded up and picked him with the No. 4 overall selection. After a solid preseason, he made his first impact in MLS when he scored a goal and had an assist for the Whitecaps off the bench against FC Dallas earlier this year.
Despite the flashes of promise, though, Manneh's extended run outs have been limited. This was just his fourth start of the year and he had come into the match with just 349 minutes of league action.
You have to assume he's earned himself a couple more starts. Nothing about Manneh's performance suggested it was a fluke or that he simply ran into a good run of form against a reeling defense. Every touch Manneh made seem to have purpose and created danger. He made the fact that Camilo Sanvezzo was kept relatively quiet a footnote.
Like many of the previous MLS wunderkinds, Manneh's best days may come in a foreign league. But unlike those ahead of him, he's already done some amazing things. I know I'll be watching.