The loss of Kei Kamara to Middlesbrough might hurt the perennial MLS Cup contenders now, but his departure permits for further retooling during the offseason.It isn't ideal to lose a key player in the middle of the playoff race, but Kamara and Sporting Kansas City operated on borrowed time from the moment the Sierra Leone international forward joined Premier League side Norwich City on loan in January.
The temporary switch introduced Kamara, 29, to a larger audience and placed him on a path to make a permanent move to Europe. His initial agreement included two potential outcomes – an option to purchase for Norwich at the end of the spell or an automatic extension on a contract set to expire at the end of the year if he returned to MLS – designed to protect Sporting's interests and secure Kamara's future in either case.
Kamara toiled earnestly for the Canaries (one goal in 11 Premier League appearances) during his time at Carrow Road, but the imminent arrival of Ricky van Wolfswinkel from Sporting Lisbon and the general dearth of goals during the second half of campaign prompted Norwich to decline its option for a full transfer and look elsewhere for reinforcements.
Although the loan move to Norwich did not yield a permanent deal, it did provide Kamara with the exposure necessary to win a deal with another club during the summer transfer window. Kamara contributed to his own cause by scoring seven times in 15 appearances upon his return with several clubs monitoring his progress. His performances in MLS – combined with his work on loan at Norwich – attracted other suitors intrigued by the possibility of signing him before the transfer window closed on Monday.
“It put him on the map with a lot of teams over there, no doubt about it,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said during a conference call on Monday. “It definitely put him in the face of a lot of different people. One of the other reasons, I think, is when he got back to Sporting from Europe – and I don't mean this in a disrespectful way – he started off well at Norwich and then – whatever the case may be – the team didn't do well. I think it was one of the reasons why the option was never exercised. I will say that once he got back fit and playing with us, he started to get back into form. I think that also helped him a tremendous amount.”
Sporting, however, operated from a position of strength created by its astute planning. The automatic contract extension triggered upon his return ensured the club – as usual, fighting for a place near the top of the Eastern Conference – did not have to accept a knockdown fee for his services. It could, in essence, point to Kamara's contract through the end of the 2014 season and tell pursuers to table an acceptable offer for one of its best players.
Some clubs tried and failed to strike the deal on their own terms. Middlesbrough eventually stepped forward to meet the necessary threshold in the final days of the transfer window and whisk Kamara away to the English Championship on a reported two-year deal.
“There were a couple of different, other teams that had interest,” Vermes said. “I wouldn't say we were fielding calls like crazy. There was another club that was interested, but it just wasn't at a point where we felt comfortable doing the deal for many different reasons. It wasn't just the offer. This one came up – I don't want to say really quickly – a little quicker than normal. It was the last four or five days here. They wanted to move quickly with the window coming to a close. It did go quickly based on the fact that we all came to an agreement on the transfer and for the personal terms for Kei and his agent.”
Kamara's departure leaves Sporting with a significant hole to fill on the right side of its front three in the short-term. The energetic and physical striker fit perfectly into Vermes' system, an athletic player capable of unsettling defenses with his pace and power in a side designed to apply pressure. None of his potential replacements – and the list includes Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad and C.J. Sapong – possess all of his qualities. Vermes said he expects their collective efforts to cover the void left by Kamara's departure, but it is by no means certain that the trio of players can replace the persistent nuisance and threat posed to opposing defenses.
In the long-term, however, this move grants Sporting necessary latitude within the salary budget to reinforce its squad. Sporting can spend a portion of the undisclosed fee – the club will receive 66 percent of the proceeds, but it can only use a part of its take as allocation money in accordance with league regulations – to maintain the increasingly expensive core of its team and supplement it wisely. Kamara – for all of his contributions and for how much Vermes wanted to keep him – represents the sort of comparatively expendable asset often sacrificed for the greater good in these situations.
“What this does for us going into the future is it definitely gives us some breathing room,” Vermes said. “It gives us an opportunity to go out to seek and search for some new guys that we can bring in and hopefully help us enhance our team as we move forward and continue to evolve. Selling a player definitely provides that opportunity to keep your core group of players together, but, more importantly, it allows you to keep evolving and getting better.”
Kamara's exit will not further those goals instantly, but it will reap benefits – through the funds generated and the redeployment of Kamara's $300,000 base salary, per MLS Players Union documents – somewhere down the line. This process always intended to create those dividends when it started nine months ago. And the final outcome – a permanent European move for Kamara and a stronger balance sheet for Sporting heading into the close season – rewarded all parties involved for their foresight and their willingness to embrace the opportunities presented.