Kekuta Manneh was granted a unique opportunity to play with his adopted home town’s club when Austin FC was formed during a period of free agency. The winger was in town staying with his family when his agent called him with the opportunity to sign with Austin FC. Manneh, 26, spent some of his youth in Austin as a member of the Lone Star Academy and at Lake Travis High School.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” Manneh said about signing with Austin FC. “For me, it’s an opportunity to come back home and not a lot of people have the opportunity to do that.”
Austin holds a soft spot in Manneh’s heart. Originally from Bakau, Gambia, Manneh left Africa in 2010. By 2011, he was living in Austin and playing for Lone Star Academy. During that 2011 season, Manneh scored 21 goals in 16 matches and was eventually observed by a scout from Arsenal in a match against FC Dallas’ developmental academy. He eventually signed with the Austin Aztex of the Premier Development League and scored 10 goals in 12 matches, including a four-goal performance.
“I made a lot of memories here at the academy and at school, and then with the Aztex,” Manneh said. “It was fun because I was playing with guys who were older than me and trying to go pro or play in college. I met a lot of cool people.”
Manneh was taken under the wing of some older players with more knowledge about the game of soccer and the city of Austin. Now back home, Manneh plans to pay that mentorship forward.
“I’ve always come back here to the academy to help out when I’m in town. I’ve been in their shoes before and wished I had a mentor that was from town,” he said. “I really want to help and I want to give a lot to the city because the city has given a lot to me.”
Eventually, Manneh’s path took him away from Austin. He signed a Generation Adidas contract and was taken fourth overall by the Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. Manneh played four seasons for Vancouver, scoring 22 goals in that span. Manneh is still the youngest player in MLS history to score a hat trick, pulling off the feat at 18 years and 283 days old.
He’s since played for four MLS teams since the start of the 2017 season, going to Columbus Crew SC for 2017, FC Cincinnati in 2019 and the New England Revolution for the last half of the 2020 season. In his MLS career, Manneh has played in 155 games and scored 31 goals, adding 19 assists. He scored one goal in six appearances for the Revolution in 2020.
“I understand the game a little bit better than I did back when I was in Vancouver. I think that is the biggest difference,” Manneh said. “It was about learning that mentality over the past six or seven years from different people. I had to see that desire and the way they carried themselves on and off of the pitch.”
Now back in Austin, Manneh wants to build a legacy. He scored two goals in Austin FC’s first-ever scrimmage, a 5-1 victory over Oklahoma City Energy FC. Last week, he drew a penalty in the club’s second scrimmage. His experience and ability to create offence from the wing is a special skill set that Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff wants to deploy regularly.
“Kekuta has a very unique skill set,” Wolff said. “He has a number of laces that he can play for us, but he did a good job in the scrimmages on the left side.”
Manneh was able to build relationships with his future teammates before preseason training began in March because the majority of the roster arrived in Austin by mid-January. That camaraderie built through the winter is already paying dividends for the club, at least according to Manneh.
“We went out to dinner and I tried to help them feel as comfortable as possible,” he said of his teammates arriving in a new city. “That’s really helped me get into training. I’m excited to be part of the group and it feels like we’ve been together for a long time.”
His goals are simple.
“I want to be the best player on the team,” Manneh said. “I want to be scoring goals and making assists. Winning games and making big plays in big games for the team.”
Manneh and his teammates get their first crack at achieving their club goals on April 17 when the MLS season begins with a road trip to LAFC. Austin FC will play its first seven games on the road as Q2 Stadium is completed. The first chance for his hometown to come to watch him and Austin FC play is June 19 against the San Jose Earthquakes.