For most of his life, Kei Kamara has been on the move. The uprooting started when he was growing up in war-torn Sierra Leone and has continued since his professional career started in 2006.
Kamara, 31, still has nightmares relating to the relocations of his childhood. The loans, trades, and transfers between teams — the Revolution are his seventh — have been comparatively benign events, though he is still seeking answers for his sudden exit from Columbus two months ago.
The events leading to Kamara’s trade to the Revolution appeared to be directly related to a dispute with Crew forward Federico Higuain over a penalty kick in a May 7 game. Kamara’s postgame comments led to a suspension, and he was left out of the lineup for a friendly match against CD Veracruz on May 11. Then, after midnight May 12, Kamara was sent to the Revolution for allocation money and draft picks, only minutes before the 1 a.m. MLS trade deadline.
But according to multiple sources, Columbus had been shopping Kamara long before the on-field conflict. And Kamara said in an interview last week: “I believe 100 percent it did not have anything to do with the trade.”
Yet, it seems curious that the Crew were considering off-loading Kamara, who tied with Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco as the league’s top goal scorer last season with 22, and was leading Columbus with five goals this year. The Revolution jumped at the chance to acquire Kamara, who had totaled 11 goals in 18 appearances against them, many when coach Jay Heaps was playing on the team’s back line.
The penalty kick issue occurred in a game the Crew had been dominating, holding a 3-1 edge over Montreal, Kamara converting twice. After Justin Meram earned a penalty early in the second half, Higuain took the ball and said later he was giving winger Ethan Finlay a chance to take the PK, but Finlay refused. Kamara, on the verge of the first hat trick of his career, expected to get the opportunity but instead Higuain claimed the penalty kick. Captain Michael Parkhurst arrived to settle the conflict, handing the ball to Higuain, who upped the lead to 4-1. The Crew then collapsed, the match ending in a 4-4 draw.
“That’s selfishness,” Kamara said after the game. “That’s not teammates. That’s selfishness.”
Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter suspended Kamara because of his post-match comments. If there had not been a rift in the locker room before, this appeared to open the possibility.
“I’m here every night thinking about it, why did I get traded?” Kamara said. “It’s not that I don’t want to be here. I want to be where I’m wanted, definitely, and right now I’ve been shown by the coach here that he wants me to be here. He’s been looking for me for a while so, definitely, then I want to be here.
“But still I question myself. If I’m helping build something really good and had a successful season, why did you get moved? Because I want to know if it was my fault on why I got moved and I never got answers to that.”
Asked if he needs the situation to be resolved, Kamara said: “I don’t know. To me, it’s about really just being here and really contribute here and push for the playoff spot. Because I still have this mentality of I want to win the MLS Cup, which I’ve never won. And, obviously, guys in this lockerroom and the coach are in the same boat. I feel like we’re all in that same boat and trying to fight through the same thing. So, for me I want to look forward, I want to keep moving forward. But still it’s going to be something in my mind. Doesn’t matter whether it’s today or 20 years down the line that I’m going to be thinking, why did that trade happen?”
Trauma that resonates
Kamara was 6 when he made his first move, joining an aunt’s household, his mother having gone to the United States with the idea of the family following.
Kamara recalls a mostly carefree existence until the day there was an explosion outside his school. Kamara ran outside and kept running, then realized he was stepping on bodies. Kamara was 6, and civil war had broken out in Sierra Leone.
“For me, really, growing up in Sierra Leone, I was really happy,” Kamara said. “I mean, I didn’t really, as a kid, see a civil war or anything like that. I didn’t focus too much into it. Maybe like, at the very end, when it was time for us to leave Sierra Leone. I was there until I was 14½ or so, then we moved to The Gambia. But I saw everything as a kid growing up, I lost friends, lost family, stuff like that. It became just regular after a while, when something happened you just know something worse is going to happen. And when it happened, you just kind of move on and just, you know, look for the next day. So when we definitely had our chance to leave the country it was just, we were waiting for it for a while.”
Was that traumatic for a youngster?
“It is now,” Kamara said. “I say that that’s my worst nightmares, nowadays. I have these nightmares of just stuff, but when I put two and two together, I know that’s why. Because we were always running when we were kids, never really settled in one town or one house because of the war, kept pushing us from our town to the next town to the city and pushing us somewhere else. I don’t wish that on any kid.”
Sierra Leone is still recovering from the civil war, which lasted from 1991-2002.
“Unfortunately, the story Kei told about being in school and having the rebels come, and jumping over dead bodies is a story we heard from so many kids and adults in Sierra Leone,” said Dave LaMattina, a Boston College graduate who made the documentary film “Kei.’’ “It’s almost like this shared trauma of a nation that no one was spared from. It says something about Kei, that he and the people in his life have been able to rise to the heights he’s risen to, because there’s a lot of people in Sierra Leone, that experience destroyed their life, and they experienced post-traumatic stress.”
Kamara’s most trusted adviser is Mohamed Kallon, the first Sierra Leone player to make a mark in Europe when he began playing in Italy’s Serie A in the late 1990s.
“I don’t know what was going on in the dressing room,” said Kallon, now coaching with the Houston Dynamo Academy teams. “I just know, if he’s scored two goals and he’s trying to get a hat trick, at least Higuain should understand where he’s coming from.
“The most important thing is where he is right now. He’s in New England and he’s happy; he told me that he’s happy. I always give him advice and, now, he’s a family man, so he has to look after his family.”
Both Kallon and Kamara have returned to set up youth programs in Sierra Leone. Kamara and Miami FC midfielder Michael Lahoud are involved in Schools for Salone, which has built several libraries and schools in the country since 2005. The Kei Kamara/Michael Lahoud Education for All Primary School was recently completed in Allen Town.
On their radar
The Revolution first witnessed Kamara early in the 2006 season, when he entered as a second-half substitute and scored the tying goal in a 1-1 draw with the Crew in Columbus.
Though Kamara scored regularly against them, he never became a villain in Revolution lore.
“He was someone we always liked as a person, and as a player,” Heaps said. “There are players you don’t like that score against you, but with him, he always seemed to beat us and smiled after he did it. He was having fun doing it.
“He’s physically strong, athletic, but he’s very smart and he doesn’t get credit for that. He makes really good runs in the box and off the ball, and that’s something for our group to see more of him, see the intricacies of his game. He’s not just physical. He’s a player you’ll definitely get knocked around [by], but there are subtleties to his game.”
In 2013, Kamara became the first Sierra Leone player to score a goal in England’s Premier League, heading in a corner kick for Norwich City in a 2-1 win over Everton. A year later, Kamara scored four goals for Middlesbrough in the League Championship, but after a knee injury, he returned to MLS with the Crew last year.
Kamara went straight into the Revolution’s starting lineup against the Chicago Fire on May 14. Though Kamara failed to convert a goal in his first five MLS games with the Revolution, he helped spark the team to three victories. Then, Kamara converted for the first time for the Revolution in a 3-2 win over the New York Cosmos in a US Open Cup match June 29. Wednesday night. Three days later, Kamara scored twice in a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Impact. And last Saturday, Kamara tallied again in a 3-1 over his former team.
When Kamara became available, the Revolution aggressively pursued him, sending a 2017 first-round draft pick, a second-round selection in 2018, an international roster slot, and general and targeted allocation money to Columbus. The Revolution outbid at least two other MLS teams, including paying Kamara his full $1 million salary, which will count about $250,000 toward the salary cap, the Crew having bought down the number.
“There are always two sides to the story,” Heaps said. “For me, the focus was on the player we knew. All the noise out there, we wanted to look past that and get him here. We felt we knew him and from Day 1 focused on his relationship with the guys here.
“And, from Day 1, from the start he’s been awesome. He works hard with the guys, stays after in training.”
LaMattina, a Revolution fan, has followed Kamara closely since he began filming in Sierra Leone in 2009.
“He’s all about his family,” LaMattina said. “His wife [Kristin Bock Kamara] and little daughter [Kierin] and dog [Chelsea, named after the club], his family in Sierra Leone. I know he takes care of a ton of people back there.
“There’s no quit in the guy. How tough is the 90th minute of a late-season game when you’ve been through what he was when he was 5, 6, 7? It gives you perspective.”