The Full 90

Good-bye Kei: Loan deal leaves Sporting KC with many questions

Updated: 2013-02-01T15:19:32Z

Charles Gooch

The Kansas City Star

"Now we're top of the East / And we know why / Because we've got Kei / Because we've got Kei." -- Cauldron song.

It's no secret that Kansas City will miss Kei Kamara while he's putting a bird on his jersey and joining the Norwich City Canaries in the English Premier League on loan.

On the field, Sporting KC will miss his production: Kamara lead (or co-lead) the team in scoring each of the last three years, scored 23 percent of all of KC's goals in that span and was responsible (if you add in assists) for 45 percent of Kansas City's goals in 2012.

Off the field? Kamara is the embodiment of "fan favorite." He organized snowball fights, tweeted incessantly about Chipotle and wore skeleton gloves (and a vampire-teeth mouth guard). His, heart-shaped hands, goal celebrations and general humanitarian work sealed the deal for most fans.

MLS losing talent overseas

The Kamara move is just the latest in an off-season of turnover in KC. In addition to Kamara, Sporting KC already lost well-traveled midfielder Julio Cesar and popular midfielder Roger Espinoza after he took his talents to Wigan. That's three starters from the Eastern Conference-winning squad who won't be there when KC kicks off the season on March 2.

But Kansas City hasn't been alone in Major League Soccer teams losing key talent.

Dallas lost Brek Shea to Stoke City officially.* D.C. United saw Belgian side Anderlecht capture Honduran youngster Andy Najar. Los Angeles lost David Beckham to Paris St.-Germain. San Jose loanee Simon Dawkins is now with Aston Villa. Houston will be without the services of versatile defender Andre Hainault. Earlier, Colombians Fredy Montero (Seattle) and Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia) made their way back home too.

*Let us pause for a second to mourn the loss of three of the most fantastic/confusing/fabulous hair cuts in MLS: Kei, Brek and Roger.

These are the problems that a still-developing league will have to deal with. European teams will always have a need for players who cost about $1-$5 million. MLS, right now, has plenty of those guys. It's not the greatest development (from a fan perspective), but the business sense of developing young players and selling them for a profit isn't the worst thing. It's basically what the Netherlands first division has become.

Which makes this is a very interesting time in the history of Major League Soccer. It's a middle point. No longer primarily a league for expiring veteran players to extend their careers (though that still happens); also no longer a purgatory for mid-level American players who are ignored by the scouts of the world (Geoff Cameron extinguished that flame last summer). As the player development and profile of the league grows, this might become a less invasive problem. But that day is likely still years into the future.

What's the future for Kamara?

For Kamara, he'll join the Canaries and try to help them avoid the relegation fight in the EPL. Currently, Norwich are 14th and 7 points above the drop zone. He gets to live out a dream of any soccer player and play for one of the best leagues in the world. (Kansas City fans might break the internet on March 30 when Kamara's Norwich take on Espinoza's Wigan Athletic.)

Will he stay with Norwich after the season ends? It depends on how the loan spell goes and whether Norwich stays up or not. His price tag (relatively cheap by English standards) could be a really wise investment if he fits in and Norwich find a way to stay up next season. Though, it's hard to see how a soon-to-be 29-year-old with limited European experience fits into Norwich's future plans.

It's worth noting that the precedent for an above mid-level attacking player going from MLS to England hasn't exactly been great. Real Salt Lake just got Robbie Findlay back after he wandered the English lower divisions for a while. Former Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers is currently … somewhere. And, let us not forget the travails of one Eddie Johnson.

'Who will replace Kei?'

Several quality bloggers have already tackled the question already. I recommend Andy Edward's tactical work at The Daily Wiz and Mike Kuhn's always quality work at Down the Byline. I will do my best to hide my rage of having been beaten to the angles I wanted to tackle on Kei. (Like that stopped me from blogging before.)

Help could be on the way -- after all, KC did receive some allocation money as part of this deal. Sporting KC's owner Robb Heineman has already divulged that several agents who represent wingers have already contacted KC.*

*File the name Dilly Duka and this story away for further examination. Peter Vermes coached Duka during the Generation adidas tour in 2011. He's an out-of-favor midfielder recovering from an injury in need of a new situation. Doesn't that sound, um, really familiar? See also: Kamara, Kei; Convey, Bobby; and Peterson, Jacob.

If this is just a temporary loan, Kamara will miss, ultimately, just 9-10 games for KC. (He would've missed the March 23rd match in New England for a Sierra Leone World Cup qualifier.)

It's my professional opinion that Kansas City can replace a lot of what he brought to the table. Not all of it. But some of it.

Positionally, if Jacob Peterson can return to form from his off-season surgery, he's the best fit. Before messing up his shoulder, he had already matched his career high for goals (4) and shots (24). What he lacks in top-line athleticism, he makes up for with hustle. In the meantime, expect to see Graham Zusi on the wing swinging in laser crosses. C.J. Sapong might get a look there too. If Sapong can figure out the right wing position, he can replace some of the aerial ability KC has just (at least temporarily) lost.

How can they replace his scoring? He was the leading goal scorer each of the last three years! Here's a tough question: What if Kamara's contribution to Kansas City's overall scoring is a bit exaggerated because he was always involved in every attacking move? He averaged (AVERAGED!) 105.5 shots per season the last three years. Consider this.

• In 2010, Kamara had 10 goals and 6 assists, accounting for 44 percent of the team's 36 goals.
• In 2011, Kamara had 9 goals and 4 assists, accounting for 26 percent of the team's 50 goals.
• In 2012, Kamara had 11 goals and 8 assists, accounting for 45 percent of the team's 42 goals.

Hmmm. The year that Kamara was the least involved in the overall scoring totals (2011) just happened to be one of the most prolific goal-scoring years in Kansas City's franchise history and the best scoring output during his four years in KC.

Well, that's not entirely fair.

In 2011, KC were simply a much more balanced team offensively. It's not like Kamara produced less that year. He just had more help and wasn't carrying the load by himself.* Omar Bravo and Teal Bunbury shared the team lead with Kamara at 9 goals, Sapong and Zusi added 5 apiece, and the defense (Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler and Julio Cesar) pitched in for 7 goals combined.

*Many times in 2012, Kansas City's sole offensive plan revolved around Kamara taking the ball and going at the defense one-v-one. Many times, that was very successful. It was also limiting and just about the opposite of "balance."

Can the 2013 version of KC achieve that sort of balance? It depends on a few major questions. Can designated player Claudio Bieler match or best Bravo's '11 season? Will Sapong continue to increase his scoring (he did net 9 last year)? How soon can Teal Bunbury return to full fitness from his ACL surgery? How much have Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer improved from last year? Will Bobby Convey and Benny Feilhaber create more goals from the midfield than last year?

One sign of hope: This will be a much improved passing team. Imagine a lineup with Zusi and Convey on the wings and Feilhaber, Peterson Joseph and Oriol Rosell pushing passes through the middle. Perhaps the days of isolating an athletic winger and hoping he'll create something is outdated in this town? We'll see soon enough.

The one question I already know the answer to in our post-Kamara reality?

There's no way Kansas City can replicate Kei's amazing goal celebrations.

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