Vancouver Whitecaps’ Kekuta Manneh runs at the Charleston Battery defence in preseason action at Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 16, 2013.
Photograph by: Rainier Ehrhardt, Getty Images
Get the nicknames ready.
At some point this season, Martin Rennie is bound to send out a front line of Darren Mattocks, Erik Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh. They are 22, 22 and 18, they’ve got speed to burn and burning ambition.
“That’s exciting,” said Rennie. That’s what we want. We’ve talked about building the team for now but also building for the future. We’ve got weapons that we’ve never had before.”
Marc Weber takes a look at the speedsters.
ERIK HURTADO: An American with Mexican feet, playing in Canada
At first, Erik Hurtado didn’t want to go to Mexico.
He pleaded with his parents — mom, Nikki, and stepdad, Geovanni — to leave him in Beaverton, Ore. Couldn’t he stay with a friend?
“But after a month of being there, I loved it,” Hurtado, now a 22-year-old Whitecaps winger, said of that time south of the border 11 years ago.
“It was a crazy change. It was drastic. I went from playing on grass, on nice fields and clean streets, to like dusty roads with rocks and bottles and dirt fields.
“It was great, though. I’m so glad I had that experience.”
For seven months, Hurtado, his mom, brother Kohl and sister Morgan, lived in Geovanni’s hometown of Cuernavaca, about 85 kilometres outside of Mexico City.
Hurtado played in the streets with his new friends. He played for a local team. And when one of his dad’s friends spotted him, Hurtado ended up with Pumas’ youth team, making trips to Mexico City to take on the likes of Chivas Guadalajara and Cruz Azul.
Despite playing for Pumas, he fell for Deportivo Toluca. They had a Uruguayan forward named Vicente Sanchez who couldn’t stop scoring.
And when Hurtado returned to Beaverton, he was different.
“My friends on my team in Oregon were like, ‘What is this?’” Hurtado said of his revised game style.
“Before I went there, I didn’t really focus on my skills. I had my strength and my speed. I’ve always been fast for my age. When I went to Mexico, they were all about footwork and cheekiness and creativity, so I adapted to that culture.”
All those elements went into the Whitecaps drafting Hurtado fifth overall in January, which surprised even Hurtado.
In the preseason, playing on right wing, he showed off that bicultural blend of force and footwork.
Hurtado’s an explosive player. He’s built like a linebacker. Second at the MLS combine in the 30-metre sprint at 4.09 seconds, he’s more likely to burst down the wing and barrel past (or over) defenders than he is to slow things down.
But he has the ability, and certainly the strength, to keep the ball — if coach Martin Rennie can bottle some (but not too much) of that bravado and convince Hurtado that dribbling isn’t always his best option.
“In high school,” Hurtado said, “I’d beat a player, stop, let him catch up, then beat him again. It was fun.”
High school, as much as Mexico, is responsible for the player Hurtado is today.
In Grade 8 at Westview in Beaverton, he was 4-foot-10 and 100 pounds.
“I heard about this little tiny mosquito that buzzed around,” his future high school coach, Jim Lekas, told ESPN.
Soccer wasn’t fun then for Hurtado. His lack of size was discouraging.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m never going to grow, it sucks being this small,’” he said.
But he kept at it, kept working on the foot skills he’d picked up in Mexico, and he tried to make up for his lack of size with creativity.
Geovanni, a carpenter, had wood in the garage. Hurtado built himself a goal outside the house and spent hours each day with a ball at his feet.
And then, finally, he grew. By his junior year, he was 5-8, 170 pounds.
“My grandparents lived in Virginia and didn’t see me for three years,” Hurtado said. “They couldn’t believe it.
“After I had my growth spurt, I was fast and strong and had the foot skills. I think being small helped me.”
Hurtado, who’s now listed at 5-10 and 180 pounds, led Westview to the 2008 Class 6A state championship game and committed to Santa Clara University, where he led the Broncos in scoring as a freshman.
In his senior year of college, he scored 15 goals and added seven assists in 19 games. He was named West Coast Conference player of the year.
His draft stock rose after a strong combine performance. The Caps nabbed him at No. 5, which was the pick they’d obtained from Philadelphia in a mid-season trade for the top allocation ranking.
Philadelphia used that ranking to sign defender Bakary Soumare, who was returning to MLS after time in France and Germany.
Coming from Santa Clara was added motivation to “feel the burn” in workouts before the combine, Hurtado said.
“East coast teams are hyped up and my Santa Clara team didn’t even make the playoffs,” he said. “I knew that I needed to impress a lot of coaches.”
He impressed the Whitecaps. And just to add spice to an already strong rivalry, the Portland Timbers had attempted to claim Hurtado as a homegrown player before the draft. He’d played for their U-23 team, but MLS rejected the claim.
“A lot of friends are calling me a traitor, but they’re kidding, just poking fun,” said Hurtado, who goes by E-Money when rapping in his spare time.
“Nothing too nasty. I’m like, ‘You’re not going to wear my jersey?’”
Finding Whitecaps fans to do the same shouldn’t be a problem. There’s something alluring about the American with Mexican feet.
DARREN MATTOCKS: Mattocks 2.0 promises more goals, fewer cards
Darren Mattocks sat down for a preseason interview in Charleston, S.C., last week when Whitecaps’ president Bobby Lenarduzzi walked through the hotel lobby.
“What did he say he’d score now?” Lenarduzzi quipped. “Forty?”
Mattocks, as those who follow the Whitecaps might know, is not afraid of making bold predictions.
Last year, he was going to break the rookie scoring record of 11 goals. (He didn’t, but he did score seven in 21 games, and one more in the playoffs). This year? He’s set 20 goals as his target.
The Whitecaps will not try to smother that confidence.
But both the club and player have worked on Mattocks 2.0 this off-season — a player who not only possesses blazing speed, a high-jumper’s leap, and a finishing touch, but one who’ll also do the thankless work for his team, stay out of the referee’s book, and set up the odd goal.
“I’m much more mature,” said Mattocks, a 22-year-old Jamaican international taken second overall in the 2012 draft.
“I want to start to be more of a leader on the team, even though this is only my second season.
“I know I’m young, but as one of the guys people expect to get goals and drive the team forward, that’s something I think I should take on as a responsibility.
“It’s a learning process. I understand what to say, what not to say. The style of play, the referees, the calls they make, what to do on and off the field.”
It was an eventful first MLS season for Mattocks.
Aside from the scoring — which included a highlight-reel leap in Toronto that’s been viewed 140,000 times on YouTube — cooking and cautions kept him in the headlines.
He severely burned himself in a kitchen accident that kept him out of the lineup until mid-May. And he served three suspensions, having picked up two red cards and seven yellows.
“No red cards,” Mattocks promised for this season.
More assists could be on the menu, though. He had one all of last season.
In a preseason win over the Charleston Battery, Mattocks picked out rookie Kekuta Manneh on an angled run with a smart pass that led to a goal.
In Manneh and Erik Hurtado, the Caps actually have players who can keep up with Mattocks, perhaps pass him, depending whom you ask. Last year, only Dane Richards had that pace, and he was only around for half a season.
Would Mattocks have made that pass last year?
“Probably not,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have seen it.
“I think I’m sharper. My overall awareness has really improved. I’m not comparing myself to Xavi, but a pass like that reminds me of a pass Xavi would have made.
“Setting up guys, I find just as much pleasure in that. When I made that pass, I was so pleased. More than the [preseason] hat trick I scored against New England.”
Caps’ coach Martin Rennie said Mattocks has a more serious, humble side to him than maybe comes across.
“I think he’s much more grounded than people think,” said Rennie, who’s expected to start Mattocks up top in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Toronto on Saturday.
Grounded, maybe. But not willing to give an inch when it comes to questions of pace.
How does it feel to be the third-fasted Whitecap? he’s asked.
“Those two rookies,” he said of Manneh and Hurtado, “give them credit, they’re really confident. I see Erik and Kekuta doing even better than me in my first season and that’s really huge.
“But that’s just a bunch of crap talk. They know I’m the fastest guy on the team.”
It’s a debate that Rennie is happy to have out there.
KEKUTA MANNEH: Teen from Gambia settling in well
Martin Rennie is pleased with how his top draft pick, Kekuta Manneh, has settled in Vancouver. In part, the coach has himself to thank.
Manneh, an 18-year-old Gambian winger who moved to the U.S. three years ago, was staying at Rennie’s house until this week.
The Whitecaps spent part of the preseason in Arizona and Carolina, but Rennie took Manneh into his home for the days in Vancouver.
Manneh is now in a hotel and will look for an apartment next week.
“I just thought it would help him not worry about what to eat or how to get anywhere,” said Rennie, who spared Manneh the chores list.
“We’d go down to the park and it would be me and my youngest daughter against my oldest daughter and him.
“They beat us, so I was like, ‘Right, I’ll take the oldest daughter.’ But they still beat us.”
The competition gets slightly tougher now.
Manneh, who scored 10 goals in 12 games for the Austin Aztex of the Premier Development League in 2012, could well start Saturday against Toronto at B.C. Place.
Rennie’s been using the fourth-overall pick on left wing, part of an attacking quartet that’s also featured Darren Mattocks, Daigo Kobayashi and Kenny Miller.
In South Carolina last week, against the third-tier Charleston Battery, Manneh scored two impressive goals.
“It’s always nice to score and be playing well,” said Manneh. “It makes you feel like you’re part of the team and I think it’ll help me start the season well.”
Rennie’s also seen a brave side of Manneh, who’s 5-foot-9, 145 pounds. He goes up for headers and challenges goalkeepers.
“He’s a very hard-working, humble kid who’s willing to learn,” said Rennie. “He’s got natural talent we can’t coach and that’s what’s exciting.”
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