Kekuta Manneh had a feeling.
The 19-year-old Vancouver Whitecap rooms with 23-year-old Erik Hurtado on the road. The two were rookies together last year, selected fourth and fifth in the Major League Soccer draft respectively, and Manneh had a sparkling first season, while Hurtado, full of athletic promise, had been slower to strike.
Before the Whitecaps met the Columbus Crew on the road this past weekend, Manneh told Hurtado he felt it was coming: Hurtado's first professional goal. And then, there it was, in spectacular fashion in the first half of a 1-0 victory on Saturday, Hurtado ably handling a long pass off his chest, darting to his left across the top of the penalty box and blasting the ball to the top-left corner of the net, no chance for the goalkeeper.
Manneh was right. And on the pitch Hurtado knew instantly. "As soon as it left my foot."
The youth brigade has arrived in full force this spring in Vancouver, buoying a Whitecaps squad that lost its top goal scorer in the off-season and earlier this month parted ways with million-dollar striker Kenny Miller. The departures, however, have not hurt and the players filling the open roles have more than delivered, propelling the team toward the top of the Major League Soccer standings.
The win on the road Saturday lifted the Whitecaps to 4-2-4 as the one-third mark of the season approaches, placing the team in a solid fourth in the Western Conference. On a points-per-game basis, the team stands fifth in the 19-team league. It is a far stronger start than might have been expected for the team in its fourth season, especially with the acrimonious departure of Camilo Sanvezzo in the off-season, who led the league in goals last season.
Riding their success in MLS, the Whitecaps have a domestic concern this week as they host the second game of a Canadian championship semi-final against Toronto FC. Toronto won 2-1 last week and the youth-veteran divide could not have been starker between the sides – Toronto, led by veterans Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, two of the highest-paid players in North American soccer. Both players, individually, earn more than the entire Whitecaps roster: Bradley makes $6.5-million (U.S.), Defoe $6.18-million, and all the Whitecaps $6.15-million.
The two stars scored last week, but it was the teenager Manneh, earning $99,500, who scored in extra time for Vancouver, which means the Whitecaps can win the two-leg affair with a 1-0 win at home Wednesday night. The Whitecaps' 16 league points in 10 games also easily outstrips Toronto's disappointing nine points in seven league matches.
Manneh is Vancouver's most promising young star, demonstrating a consistent knack for the net. The 5-foot-9, 145-pound player who grew up in Gambia scored six goals in 20 games last year and another three this year, and is the club's co-leading scorer with Chilean veteran Pedro Morales.
On a sunny Monday morning, spirits were light after the weekend victory. The talk was about Hurtado's noteworthy black hair, which is buzzed on the sides and bleached blond spikes on top. Hurtado heads to a hairdresser Tuesday – and he's sticking by the look. "Keep the blond, obviously," Hurtado said. Manneh, shyer and with tight, short black curly hair, doesn't plan something so spectacular. "I like it – it's different," said Manneh of his road roommate's hair, and then of own modest stylings: "I will stick with this one."
Attention is cast on the goals, but the Whitecaps have a serious young player in the midfield: Matias Laba, a 22-year-old Argentine acquired from Toronto in the off-season. Against Columbus on the weekend, Laba recorded 11 tackles, the second-most of any player in a match in MLS in the past several seasons.
While the kids are more than all right, they remain just kids. The club will look to possibly add another veteran goal scorer, as the summer transfer window opens, to replace the departed Miller. For now, the attacking young spear of the team is underpinned by the ballast of veteran defenders, including captain Jay DeMerit and Andy O'Brien, both 34.
A key is communication and positioning, said DeMerit, so the back end can get the ball across the half to the young forwards in positions from which they can work.
"You can see the freshness, you can see the energy they have up there," said DeMerit on Monday. "And when you can corral that, and make sure those guys are using their energy at the right time, then that's exciting, but there's still a lot of work to do."