Kekuta Manneh's Far-Flung Soccer Journey Comes Full Circle With Austin FC
The Gambian native returns to his adopted city to kick off AFC's debut season
One spring afternoon in 2012, ex-English Premier League forward Paul Dalglish walked into Lake Travis High School carrying a bag of Chick-fil-A. Dalglish had recently signed on to coach the semi-pro Austin AzTex of the Premier Development League and was on the lookout for promising local talent to add to the squad. Having already assessed the latest class of college seniors in the area, he turned his attention to Central Texas’ top youth academy, Lonestar Soccer Club. Starting at striker for Lonestar was a diminutive, speedy 17-year-old named Kekuta Manneh, an adopted Austinite by way of Gambia. He was scoring goals at will.
“He was a huge, huge talent as a teenager and I wanted to get him into the team,” Dalglish said. There was only one problem: Manneh already had a club. He was exceling and had no need for a change, especially since Dalglish couldn’t offer a professional salary. But the week before the AzTex’s opening game, Dalglish received a call that things had changed. “Unfortunately, he got into an incident in an academy game where somebody said something, I think, about his mother,” Dalglish said. “And Kekuta, he’s young, reacted as anybody would.” After an altercation on the field, Manneh was kicked off the team. Heartbroken and angry, he considered quitting soccer altogether. It would have been a premature end to a soccer journey that had already taken Manneh across the world and into the arms of a loving new family.
Seven years earlier, a 10-year-old Manneh walked the dirt path home from his local soccer field in Bakau, Gambia, arriving to learn that his mother had died from kidney failure. Soccer provided the only escape from his pain. He became obsessed with the sport, playing in his mother’s memory while living with his grandmother. Manneh grew into one of his country’s most exciting young prospects, but he knew he would have to go abroad to fully unlock his potential. “I wasn’t getting any closer. If I was to remain in Gambia, there was not a lot of scouting, a lot of opportunities,” Manneh told the Chronicle.
Rush Soccer, the parent organization of his academy team Gambia Rush, took notice. They offered Manneh a chance to go on exchange to Atlanta, Ga., and play for the academy team there. He would live with a host family and attend U.S. high school. Manneh’s grandmother had reservations. Manneh did not. “When an opportunity comes your way, you have to grab it with both hands,” he said. “That’s what the decision was.”
He played one season in Atlanta but did not grow enough as a player or as a person. The soccer level was beneath him and he struggled to acclimate to his surroundings off the field. Rush Soccer offered Manneh one more option: transfer to Houston and play for Texas Rush, the highest level of academy soccer they could offer. Manneh agreed. He just needed a new family to take him in.
The Niccums, a white Christian family from Katy whose son Cameron captained the team, volunteered. They made Manneh, an African-born Muslim, feel welcomed and loved. They respected his traditions and included him in theirs. After learning about the death of Manneh’s mother, and the fact that his father wasn’t around much, the Niccums offered to adopt him. For the first time in Manneh’s life, soccer was not part of the decision. He embraced the new life he’d found, even though it quickly removed him from the academy he’d crossed the country to join.
His adopted father Eric’s job necessitated a move to Austin. Manneh signed up to play for Lonestar Soccer Club and enrolled at Lake Travis High School, where Paul Dalglish was about to save Manneh’s career with the help of fast food.
Dalglish met Manneh and his mother LaRhonda during Manneh’s lunch break, just days after the incident that got Manneh banned from Lonestar. Dalghlish hoped the Chick-fil-A, Manneh’s favorite, would ease the teenager’s cynicism. “I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to come and play for the AzTex.’ You have too much talent to just give up on football. I’ll help you, I’ll protect you.”
Manneh eventually agreed. In the AzTex’s first game, he came on as a substitute and scored within minutes. “All the guys on the team were like, ‘Oh my, who’s this kid?’” Dalglish recalled. The following month, Manneh exploded for four goals in one game. He finished the season with 13 in 14 games and was named to the All-Conference team.
The AzTex 2.0 (a previous iteration of the club had already come and gone) played home games at House Park off North Lamar Boulevard. Alcohol sales were not permitted at the Austin ISD-owned stadium, so a large portion of the club’s fans would begin and end each game day at the Tavern, the nearby pub. Once they’d showered and been dismissed, several of the AzTex players would make the short walk over and mingle with the fans. Even though he was too young to drink, Manneh often went to thank the fans for their support. He was amazed people cared about soccer in a football state. “You could see how much pleasing the local fans meant to him,” AzTex volunteer and supporter Ed Easton said. “He was just a charming and very polite young man, so it was easy to make him our favorite player.”
Manneh spent just the one season for the AzTex before Dalglish entered him into the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Picked fourth by the Vancouver Whitecaps, Manneh’s pro career started strong. He became the youngest player in MLS history to score a hat trick at 18. The U.K.’s Daily Star had him linked to Premier league clubs. Eventually, though, his form dipped and he fell out of favor with Vancouver, who traded him to the Columbus Crew in 2017. That same year, club owner Anthony Precourt announced he was considering relocating the Crew to Austin.
Manneh was quite possibly the only person in Ohio excited by the news. He didn’t want to see one of the league’s original teams uprooted, but if it meant the chance to play top-flight soccer in his adopted home, he was ready. With Manneh playing on the final year of his contract, relocation moved to the center of his talks with Columbus. If the club was destined for Austin, he would re-sign. If not, he was ready to accept a trial offer from German club Union Berlin. It quickly became clear that a relocation verdict was years away, so Manneh went overseas.
Finally, after returning to MLS in 2019-2020, Manneh got his opportunity to come home. Austin FC approached him this winter with an offer to join the expansion team’s inaugural roster. “It was a no-brainer,” Manneh said. With the club’s debut now just one week away, Manneh, still just 26 years old, is the hometown darling of the squad. “I want to connect the city with the club,” he said.
He is thrilled to live, once again, with his brother Cameron in an apartment they share. Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff has praised Manneh’s work ethic, and Manneh has rewarded his coach with multiple goals in the preseason. It appears Manneh’s role, early on, will be one he’s had success with in the past: the dangerous attacking substitute. Off the field, he’s taken it upon himself to help introduce his teammates to Austin. “I try to make everybody feel as welcomed as much as I can.”
Manneh’s career is the strongest through line connecting a transformational decade of soccer in Austin. His presence on Austin FC’s roster has given some of the earliest soccer fans of Central Texas extra reason to commit to the Verde. “When Austin FC decided to take a chance on him, I was over the moon,” AzTex loyal Easton said. “I just thought, what a brilliant connection to the past that that the team is trying to make.”