VANCOUVER - Steve Nash, Angus Reid, Vasek Pospisil, Kekuta Manneh … four athletes with B.C. connections all bound by the common affliction of nerve root irritation and back pain that can take the fire out of even the most committed athlete.
Whether an old campaigner like the 40-year-old Nash, or a rising young star such as Pospisil in ATP or Manneh in Major League Soccer, back pain is the great leveler. It forces the high performance athlete to stop what they are doing, to turn to surgery, drugs or therapy or simply to live in misery, as Reid, the 13-year veteran centre of the B.C. Lions, did last season, before announcing his retirement.
Ultimately, back pain sets a limit on what an athlete can achieve, and for how long they can achieve it. When you’re just 19, like Manneh, with your whole career ahead of you, it definitely grabs your attention.
“Sunday was a good first step for me,” Manneh explained Tuesday at the Vancouver Whitecaps’ UBC training centre. “I had a disc problem that bothered me for two months. I missed all of preseason and I only had about 10 days of training (before the season started).
“I’m still in the process of catching up. I’m doing extra stuff to try and get there, eventually.”
For a player whose fitness level was in question, the young man from mainland Africa’s smallest country -- Gambia -- did a great job of disguising it Sunday afternoon against Chivas USA.
With his team playing as languid as the 30 degree heat at StubHub Center, Whitecaps’ manager Carl Robinson made a series of substitutions in the second half to shake up his side, trailing 1-0 despite playing 11 men to 10 after a Chivas player was red-carded early in the match.
Manneh proved to be the ideal shock trooper, replacing veteran midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker whose giveaway had led to the Chivas’ goal.
He injected life into a team playing so listlessly it was in danger of being disowned by family members, never mind Whitecaps’ fans.
In the 81st minute, the super sub’s industry was rewarded with the tying goal, after Manneh converted a pass from Darren Mattocks that allowed the Whitecaps to escape California with a point in the 1-1 draw.
“What Kekuta does, coming off the bench especially, he gives you pace and power,” explained defender Jay DeMerit. “The first time he gets the ball, he goes right at the defender. Being a defender myself, the last thing I want is a Kekuta Manneh coming at me in the 80th minute. I think he causes a lot of people problems. He continued to do that on Sunday. We need our subs just as much as we need our starters.”
Manneh had proved to be not only his team's most vital substitution but its most willing and, by some distance, he and Mattocks were the most creative players on a squad singularly lacking in other candidates.
“We’ve always had chemistry since we started playing together last year,” Manneh explained. “We know each other’s strengths and we’re pretty close. We’re roommates on the road. It helps what we do out there (soccer pitch).”
Ten of thousands of winter sun seekers from Europe flock to Gambia -- a small sliver of West African territory thrust into the land mass of Senegal -- which got a bump-up in tourism after the Arab spring sent holidaymakers further south from the north African hot spots of Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.
Like 95 per cent of Gambia’s 1.7 million inhabitants, Manneh is a practising Muslim, one starting to become better known in his homeland since leaving as a 15-year-old to pursue a football career.
In one of the hotels and luxury resorts overlooking the sparkling blue seas in Manneh’s hometown, Bakau, his father, Lamin, a hotel manager, gathered with other like-minded soccer fans to watch Kekuta’s game on satellite TV Sunday.
“Most of the (Gambian soccer) players didn’t know much about MLS,” Manneh explained. “Growing up, everybody wanted to play in Europe. I didn’t know the league in North America existed. But now MLS is getting big. People watch the games. There’ll be a big crowd in my hometown for Whitecaps games. People contact me on Facebook all the time. They text me before the game. It’s getting pretty cool. I know people are watching at home, and I want to make them proud.”
Does MLS really figure highly in the minds of young foreign players who are routinely told where the money is and where their main career challenge should lie?
Manneh admits his ultimate goal is to play in Europe. For now, though he must focus on playing more useful minutes for the Whitecaps and converting that energy and raw talent into the form of a reliable game-breaker.
A luminous performance against Chivas didn’t hurt.
“Potentially, he could go on to play in Europe,” explained Whitcaps assistant coach Martyn Pert. “He’s quick, technically good. (But) I would say he’s still got a lot to work on, if that’s going to come to fruition. I think he’s got the ambition to do it. Hopefully, he can.”
CORNER KICKS: Midfielder Russell Teibert, who missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, practised Tuesday with the non-starters and seems to have recovered from his injury . . . Defender Johnny Leveron completed a full training session after going through concussion protocol last week.
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