When the third trade of his career was announced in September 2009, Kei Kamara made no bones about the fact he didn’t want to come to Kansas City.
Kamara, who had previously been traded from Columbus to San Jose to Houston, was very unhappy when the Dynamo shipped him to Sporting Kansas City for Abe Thompson and allocation money.
Houston was in the middle of CONCACAF Champions League play and would tie for first place in the MLS Western Conference when Kamara was dealt for next to nothing to the then-Wizards, who were far from playoff contention and played at CommunityAmerica Ballpark.
Three years later, there’s no place Kamara, who turns 28 today, would rather be. His career has taken off under coach Peter Vermes’ tutelage, which helped Kamara blossom into an MLS All-Star and one of the most feared players in the league.
“Honestly, you’re right, I didn’t want to come here and didn’t expect anything good to come from it,” Kamara said. “But once I got to the locker room, everything was different. Having Jack (Jewsbury), Davy (Arnaud), Josh (Wolff) and guys like that in the locker room, guys like Jimmy Conrad who also played for the national team, was a different atmosphere for me.”
Originally selected by the Crew as the ninth overall selection in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, Kamara’s talent has never been questioned.
However, his ability to get the most from that talent and his commitment to being a team player weren’t as universally lauded.
Houston said dealing Kamara was motivated by money. He was a Generation adidas player, whose salary was off the books at the time, but he’d soon graduate from the program and an extension had to be hammered out.
Officially, the Dynamo blamed stalled negotiations for moving Kamara, a promising striker with the size and speed to develop into a special player. But reports also surfaced that Kamara and Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear were at odds and had been for some time.
Turns out, that might have been for the best.
In addition to the amenable locker room, Kamara found a coach in Vermes who would push and prod him, but also succeeded in getting Kamara to believe the message he was preaching.
“I had to learn about him, and he had to respect what we were trying to do,” Vermes said. “It’s a combination of the two going forward. But it all comes back to trust.”
Kamara agrees that his relationship with Vermes made all the difference.
“Peter will scream at me, but sometimes I tell him to do it a lot more, because he brings the best out of me,” Kamara said. “But he also shows me video and breaks down all the ways I can impact the game.”
There are endless ways Kamara’s play has buoyed Sporting KC during the last three seasons.
Kamara had 14 goals and three assists in 80 games in prior stops with the Crew, Earthquakes and Dynamo. He scored one goal in six games with Sporting KC to close out the 2009 season, but broke out with 10 goals and six assists in his first season with the club.
Kamara, who seems like a lock to lead Sporting KC in scoring for a third straight season, tied for the team lead with nine goals and added four assists in 2011 and already has a team-high 10 goals this season to go with five assists.
Along with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski and Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio, Kamara is one of three MLS players with at least nine goals in each of the last three seasons.
“Kei Kamara is, quite frankly, one of the best players in the league,” New England coach Jay Heaps said after a scoreless draw July 21 at Livestrong Sporting Park.
That might not be well-known by fans coast-to-coast, but it’s a well-established fact within MLS.
“Players worry about him more than anyone during the game,” Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza said. “You can tell by the coaches and the body language from a lot of the players on other teams. Kei is a focus on corner kicks, set pieces, any through ball. Tactically, someone is always guarding Kei.”
That’s because Kamara a complete, versatile and dangerous player. He’s also accepted his role on the right wing, where his myriad skills can be put to the best use.
“For a big man, he’s very good with the ball at his feet,” Vermes said. “What’s incredible is his natural agility for his size. He can do things with that body and that ability to move at his side. At times, he’s dominating on the field.
“He has it all and he’s becoming more tactically aware. He’s understanding the game itself better and his role in it. It’s not just his athleticism, but there’s a tactical sense that he’s grown into.”
The reputation he had with other organizations of being moody has given way to adoration among the Sporting KC faithful, who held up heart-shaped hands — Kamara’s trademark hand-signal goal celebration — en masse during his penalty kick in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final.
“I had no idea that was going on until I saw the video and some pictures after the game,” Kamara said. “Seeing that everybody had it up, that gave me the chills.”
Want to learn even more about Kamara? Ticket holders for Saturday’s game are invited to a special screening of “KEI” — a 30-minute documentary from Copper Pot Films about Kamara and his charitable efforts.
Kamara is a Sierra Leone international who works with Schools for Salone, which builds schools in his native country and other parts of Africa.
The documentary’s premiere will take place in the Shield Club after the game and there also will be a benefit auction, including jerseys and autographed soccer balls, for Schools for Salone.