On the eve of one of the biggest off-field announcements in Columbus Crew history, the team has made an important on-field move.
The Black & Gold have used the top spot in Major League Soccer's allocation ranking to bring forward Kei Kamara back to North America. For the Sierra Leone native, it is a return to the place where he began his professional career, as the Crew selected the forward ninth overall in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. He played two seasons in Columbus.
"How many people get to say they get to go back to work or play where they started? I started here," Kamara told TheCrew.com. "Columbus gave me my first opportunity to become a professional, and now in the prime of my career I'm back in Columbus. I'm excited."
Kamara's contract was terminated by English Football League Championship side Middlesbrough earlier this season, clearing the path for him to return to MLS. Because he left the League for a transfer fee, he was subject to the MLS allocation ranking. The forward said that as soon as returning to MLS was an option, he checked the order to see who was on top, which piqued his interest.
"I always had said that if I'm going to come back to MLS, it's going to be Kansas City. I'm not going to go anywhere else," said Kamara. "[However], I did not ask Columbus at all to trade my rights to Kansas City when I saw Columbus up top. I told my agent, 'go ahead and talk to Columbus.' When he went to talk to Columbus, [Gregg Berhalter] asked to talk to me directly. I did not even [think of] asking him about trading my rights because his tone, his voice, everything was so welcoming. That's how we kept talking to make everything happen."
Kamara flourished in MLS as a winger in Peter Vermes' 4-3-3 system. In Columbus, he profiles as a lone striker up top in Berhalter's 4-2-3-1, which according to the Crew boss is a role that he believes suits Kamara perfectly.
"That's the position he prefers to play, a lone number nine, so that fits perfectly into our system," said Berhalter. "In a pinch, or if we wanted to tactically change something, we feel like he would be very effective on the wing as well, so we like that versatility. That's another reason he was an important candidate for us."
Kamara echoed the thoughts of his new head coach, saying that Berhalter sold him on the club's new style of play, calling it "entertaining" and saying that it wins matches, which is a focal point for him at this stage of his career.
"When I knew about how this team was playing, that's the best position for me," said Kamara. "I want to be in the box. I want to be the guy in the box, taking shots, going up for headers. If a team is playing the way Columbus is playing at the moment, ball possession, getting the ball wide, crossing balls in the box, then I want to be in the box … I'm at the prime of my career where I want to win something. It's not about getting all the attention, all of the fame, all of the joy now. It's about focusing on something serious. That's my goal at the moment."
Although the Sierra Leone native cannot play this season, he will train with the team down the stretch, and both he and Berhalter anticipate far-reaching benefits from his involvement this year.
"We want to get him acclimated with Columbus again and how we play," said Berhalter. "We see this as a head start on bringing him up to speed with the rest of the group. I mentioned his leadership ability and it can only be a positive influence to have someone like that around the group, pushing the group. He's had experience in the Playoffs and end-of-the-season games, so this experience will be valuable for our team."
"I think I'm a positive guy in the locker room when it comes down to it," added Kamara. "I know what it takes to win games. I know what it feels like to be losing, everything – I've been through it all. I've been to how many different clubs, I've been playing under some great coaches and I've learned a lot. I believe that I can bring my experience into the locker room. I can motivate guys. I can help the young boys. I don't know him much, but I've heard so much about [Wil] Trapp. Somebody like that, I would love to be around. [Steve Clark], he just looks like me, a fun guy. I love seeing that. When you have team chemistry, which I love, that's the best way for a team to move forward."