It's been almost three weeks since Kei Kamara bolted for the English Championship, leaving Sporting Kansas City without its lead attacker.
The Kansas City Star
Both parties fared well in the first games after the departure: Kansas City spanked Columbus 3-0 in its first official game without him; Kamara notched his first goal with Middlesborough this week.
But signs of offensive weakness for Sporting surfaced on Tuesday night against Real Esteli in the CONCACAF Champions League. In need of a goal, Kansas City didn't have the option of turning to its most consistent* scoring threat. Instead, we got a familiar refrain of the "dominate but frustrate" offense.
*It's a weird label to put on one of Major League Soccer's most inconsistent strikers, but I'll explain that rationale as we go on. Just go with it.
How important has Kei to KC? Since 2010, the Sierra Leone forward has contributed 29 goals and is one of just five players to score at least 7 goals every season in that span.*
*See, I told you. Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski, Dwayne De Rosario and Alvaro Saborio are the others. Good company? No, excellent company.
He was a single-entity Plan B for Sporting KC.
He was aggressive, intense, great in the air (only Aurelien Collin and Ike Opara won more aerial duals) and often breathtakingly athletic (I mean, c'mon, he did this in a game).
This season, in just 15 appearances after returning from his loan with Norwich City, Kamara picked up 7 goals. He leaves the team second in goals this season behind Claudio Bieler (10). He has as many goals himself as fellow forwards Soony Saad (4), C.J. Sapong (2) and Dom Dwyer (1) have combined.*
*Saad and Sapong both scored against Columbus. Which means when he left, Kamara had accounted for MORE goals than than Saad, Sapong, Dwyer, Jacob Peterson and Teal Bunbury combined!
Adding him back into the lineup saw Kanas City's goals per game average pushed to 1.57 (up from 1.35 in the 13 games without him).
Sporting KC's record was also slightly better with Kamara around, as KC were 7-4-4 (1.66 points per game) with him and 6-5-2 (1.53) without him.*
*Interestingly, the biggest shift with Kei around? Kansas City were shutout just twice with him in the lineup. Without him, KC posted a doughnut five times -- including two-straight 1-0 defeats this summer when Kamara was out injured.
Kamara, however, had his issues. Some seemed detrimental to Kansas City's new style of play.
He was often a possession black hole and a surprisingly poor passer. According to WhoScored.com, Kamara's pass-success rate was 69.4%. The only out-field players with worse percentages? Reserve fullbacks Mechack Jerome (67%) and Kevin Ellis (64%).
Those numbers aren't great for a team morphing away from a transition-based offense and into a possession-based one.
He seemed allergic to crossing the ball (averaging just 0.4 accurate crosses per game according to WhoScored?; Graham Zusi led the team with 2.8) and had an assertive propensity to take a ton of shots -- some with little to no accuracy. He was tied for the team lead with Saad this year with 2.8 shots per game. Last season, he led the league with 134 shots -- only 49 of them on target.*
*Is it a coincidence that Kamara's re-insertion into the side coincided with designated player Bieler's summer slump? I don't think so. Of Bieler's 10 goals this year, only two came with Kamara in the lineup -- and one of those was a penalty kick. I'm not going to blame Kamara entirely for the slump, as Bieler has a habit of disengaging from the game at times. But I think Kamara's habit of drifting into a central position and either shooting or dribbling into trouble (instead of crossing the ball and linking play), would often further isolate Bieler in the center.
Regardless of his faults, when healthy, Kamara's name was likely written on the Starting XI sheet in pen.
This Saturday against Toronto, Peter Vermes will have to figure out where this team is going during the playoff stretch. It will be the first game of the post-Kamara era that Vermes have his whole team to pick from. (Zusi missed the Columbus game on national team duty; Dwyer was in mercenary mode helping Orlando City win the USL Pro title.)
The coach is not wanting for options. Though, none are a like-for-like replacement.
Sapong got a lot of chances early this season out wide, though last year's starting central forward failed to impress as a winger and was sent out on loan to Orlando City this year to regain his form. He has the same problems in possession as Kamara (a 70% passing rate on less than half the attempts per game as Kamara), but he's young and has the most raw athletic talent of any of KC's forwards.
Veteran Jacob Peterson (who picked up the only goal for KC against Esteli) isn't as technically or physically gifted as the rest of the group, but he can provide width, grit and defense. All three features are probably best served in a reserve role.
Dwyer could also see time out there, but he's not a proven quantity in an wide role. Same goes for Bunbury.
The most likely full-time replacement is Zusi. He's primarily lined up at right wing this year and began the season on that side with Sapong on the left.
If Vermes goes with the trio of Saad-Bieler-Zusi, it will further move KC away from the high-press and transition game. That trio of technically-gifted forwards oozes potential.* And, really, it's not a pairing we've seen up top a lot this year.
*And Saad and Zusi are KC's two most accurate crossers.
Saad only began his emergence in July while Kamara's presence moved Zusi back to midfield. Call-ups for Zusi have also limited the potential chemistry from growing.
What all of the options for the right wing spot (even Zusi) lack is Kamara's unpredictability. This was evident earlier this year when Kansas City would control possession at home but lack the flair or ideas to break down a bunkered opponent (See Fire, Chicago 0-0). The only idea seemed to pump as many crosses as possible into the net (See Dynamo, Houston every game played over the last three years).
If that sounds familiar, that's exactly what happened against Real Esteli. With all 11 Esteli players behind the ball -- and throwing their bodies in front of every shot -- Kansas City flung 29 crosses into the box. Only 20% of them connected. (The Saturday before against Columbus, KC only had 8 crosses. Connected on about 35%.)
Kamara wasn't the answer to unlocking bunkered defenses (the problems existed often when he played), but he presented the best key: Unpredictability.*
*Kamara reminds me a lot of NBA player Jamal Crawford for the Los Angeles Clippers. Just watch this video. Talented, athletic ... and unpredictable. But that unpredictability comes with a price -- inconsistency. Sound familiar? Crawford has as much raw ability as Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade, but not the consistent performances to make that sound like a crazy-person statement. Again, sound familiar?
Against Esteli, they were missing that spark. That moment of flair. That "Kei" moment. If they can get an early goal and get Bieler involved early (like the Columbus route), that won't be a problem.
But if KC gets stuck in the mud trying to pass around a bunkered team -- like Toronto or Philadelphia next Friday? -- they'll need someone to step into that Kamara-shaped void down the stretch. Or that old familiar "dominate but frustrate" offense with no Plan B might come back to haunt Sporting KC.