Kei Kamara departed Kansas City in September 2013, and he traveled to Middlesbrough, England, a setting that offered him a chance to fulfill a career-long aspiration.
The move would be temporary, he remembers telling himself, merely a break in his blossoming tenure with Sporting Kansas City.
“I always said when I do come back to MLS, it won’t be any place but Kansas City,” Kamara said.
It didn’t quite work out that way, of course, and that wasn’t completely his choice.
After only one year with Middlesbrough FC, Kamara returned to Major League Soccer this season. But because Sporting KC received a transfer fee for his departure in 2013, Kamara was forced to go through the MLS allocation process rather than pick his destination. Columbus, owner of the No. 1 allocation ranking, quickly pounced last offseason.
When asked if Sporting KC was interested in a reunion with Kamara, coach Peter Vermes replied without hesitation.
“Of course. Of course. Of course,” he said. “What people don’t understand — and even some players don’t understand — is realistically, we couldn’t even talk to him because it would be tampering.
“So it was just one of those things where it’s more centered around the rules than anything else. That’s just the way it goes.”
It’s worked out OK.
For Kamara, anyway.
In his first season back in MLS, Kamara is having a career-best season. He leads the league with 18 goals in 25 matches.
Next up: An emotional one.
The Columbus Crew will play host to Sporting KC at 6:30 p.m. Saturday — Kamara’s first game against the team he called his own from 2009-2013.
“Kansas City is my heart,” Kamara said in a phone interview. “I’ll have to hold my emotions and just focus on the game and continue what I’ve been doing all season. It’s going to be good seeing old friends that helped me build my resume. It’s going to be really touching for me.”
Kamara was an offensive force during his time in Kansas City, which followed less-than-stellar stints with Columbus, the San Jose Earthquakes and the Houston Dynamo. He led Sporting KC in scoring in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and scored 38 goals over his career with the club.
A change of scenery in Columbus has been accompanied by a positional change. After playing on the wing for Sporting KC, Kamara is occupying the central forward slot in the Crew’s formation.
He’s dominated there. Kamara is a dangerous threat on aerial attacks — “I’m the best in the league on that,” he says — and has solidified his knack for creating chances on net. He’s also second in the league in shots and third in shots on goal.
“When I was playing in Kansas City, I was running toward goal most of the time. (Now), my back is to goal, and defenders are really up tight on you,” Kamara said. “There’s not a lot of time to get the ball and run at them, which I do miss, but at the same time, I can see the game develop a lot more as the ball comes forward.”
Columbus and Sporting KC are meeting Saturday for the only time in 2015 — barring an MLS Cup rematch — meaning Kamara won’t play in front of his former fans this season.
He has been to Kansas City only twice since returning to MLS — once to get married.
“I hold Kansas City really close to my heart,” Kamara said. “I’m here in Columbus, and I love this town. Things are really, really good for me.
“But I’m not going to be shy or afraid to say that I love Kansas City. I do love Kansas City.”
To reach Sam McDowell, call 816-234-4869 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcDowell11. Tap here to download The Star’s free Extra Time KC soccer app for iOS and Android devices.