One year ago, the New England Revolution broke the MLS bank to add a player who could hopefully rekindle the team's long and painful quest for an MLS Cup title. Today, though, that move is looking like a costly mistake.
The Revs needed to shake things up. That much was clear when they jumped into discussions with the Columbus Crew over disgruntled forward Kei Kamara in May 2016. He was less than a year removed from being a 22-goal scorer and leading the Crew to an MLS Cup final, but had worn out his welcome in Columbus. The Revs saw an opportunity to add a game-changing player who could help revive the franchise, and they showered Columbus with allocation money to make a deal happen.
To New England, the deal was a no-brainer but to many around MLS, the move was seen as a gamble given the circumstances surrounding Kamara's departure from Columbus, and the fact the Crew had just signed him to a large contract extension that meant he would have to excel to justify his price tag.
As we stand more than a year after the trade, New England's gamble hasn't paid off. Instead of having a goal-scoring machine, the Revs have an unhappy and unproductive forward who may have already worn out his welcome.
How can one best describe Kamara? It depends on who you ask. To some, he is bad teammate, someone who doesn't connect well with everyone, and who can be difficult to deal with on the field. To others, he is a good person with a good heart and bags of talent, a misunderstood soul, but a player capable of dominating a game and leading a team to success.
Which one is he? The truth lies somewhere in between.
There may be no bigger enigma in MLS than Kamara. That word fits him like a glove. On one hand, Kamara can alienate teammates and choose inopportune times to make things about himself. On the other hand, Kamara was named the 2015 MLS Humanitarian of the Year for his philanthropic work in his native Sierre Leone, where he has helped build schools.
On the field, Kamara's move to New England has been largely disappointing. He has managed 12 goals and six assists in 39 league matches since arriving in mid-2016 via trade from the Crew. In Columbus, it took just six months for Kamara to go from an MVP candidate leading the Crew to an MLS Cup final, to a locker room headache the Crew couldn't get rid of fast enough.
Kamara's enigmatic ways manifested themselves in the public eye most recently a week ago, when he chose to voice his concerns about his standing with New England after the Revs defeated the LA Galaxy to snap a four-match losing skid. One would think it would be a time to express happiness with a much-needed victory, or even a time to make it about the team, but instead Kamara made it about himself, casting doubt publicly over whether he fits with the Revs.
“I feel bad for myself and for the club because I haven’t really produced for the club,” Kamara told reporters. “They brought me here to score goals and do stuff and I haven’t had that impact, you know."
Kamara revealed that he had recently sat down with Revs officials to discuss his situation, and while he didn't come out and ask for a trade, he all but did just that by asking whether he and the Revs might be better off parting ways.
"[The meeting] was really about what’s best for both of us," Kamara told reporters. "I want to play here, I want to move forward, but if I'm not in the right system to score those goals, to move forward and to be an impact, it affects the fans because they want to see the best from me, and I want to give this club my all."
At his best, Kamara can be a dominant forward, but he has struggled in New England playing in an attack that isn't really built for his strengths. With the Crew, Kamara had quality wingers providing him service in Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay. The Revs have talented attacking options in midfield, but their players are more effective at combining and playing short passes rather than providing consistent quality crosses in to one of the league's best aerial threats.
Kamara is fully aware of this less-than-ideal stylistic fit, and even the Revs have to know there is truth to the idea that Kamara's productivity has been hampered by being on a team not well-suited to play to his strengths.
Given all that, the Revs should be rushing to deal him, but it isn't quite that simple. Sources tell Goal that there was some interest in Kamara before the summer window opened, but as of this week there were no standing offers for him. Teams ranging from Vancouver to D.C. United to the Colorado Rapids have sniffed around at one point or another, but as of now nobody is knocking down New England's door to make a deal.
Working against a potential trade is Kamara's reputation as a problem in the locker room. While he paints a rosy picture of smiles and happiness on social media, he isn't exactly the most beloved figure within team circles.
A post-game dust-up between Kamara and rookie Josh Smith and defender Antonio Delamea early in the season — after a Revs win — didn't win him any love in the locker room, and his pouting over service and Jay Heaps' substitution patterns has only served to perpetuate the perception in league circles that Kamara is a locker room cancer.
Add that to the fact Kamara is making $800,000 this season, and has a team option in 2018 for $1 million, and you see why teams aren't exactly lining up to become the seventh different MLS team he has played for.
Are there teams Kamara would make sense for? Sporting Kansas City would seem like a natural fit given the fact the club just traded Dom Dwyer and could use a striker. Kamara enjoyed success with Sporting KC under for Peter Vermes before making the jump to England in 2013, but sources tell Goal that Sporting KC wouldn't necessarily be in a hurry to facilitate a reunion.
The LA Galaxy might make more sense than they might have earlier in the year. The Galaxy had been shopping in the expensive section of the striker market earlier in the season, eyeing big-ticket targets like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Dario Benedetto, but the recent signing of Jonathan dos Santos means there will be no designated player striker added this season.
Newly-hired Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid is the man who drafted Kamara when he was coach of the Columbus Crew, and has sung his praises before. That being said, Schmid has enough to deal with right now as he takes over a struggling Galaxy squad, and adding a volatile presence like Kamara might not be a risk Galaxy management will want to take, at least not this year.
Real Salt Lake could use a target forward, and is in the midst of trying to unload its own overpriced and disgruntled striker in Yura Movsisyan. Expansion side LAFC could be an option next year, though most likely at a significantly lower salary than the $1 million Kamara would make if his current contract's option year is picked up.
The reality is the Revs and Kamara are stuck in a marriage neither wants anymore, but a divorce is complicated. New England will have to make a decision on whether to pick up Kamara's million-dollar option in 2018, and the Revs may have no choice but to pick it up and then hope to find a trade suitor for an MLS version of a sign-and-trade before the season.
It's either that or let Kamara go for nothing, which isn't something the Revs can really afford. Even if the Revs did re-sign Kamara in order to trade him, they would need to find a team who saw Kamara as being worth a $1 million salary, on top of whatever the Revs would want in a trade for his rights.
At this point, Kamara and the Revs just have to stick things out in 2017, with Kamara being motivated to show potential suitors he is still very much a dangerous forward, and the Revs knowing their best hope of making the playoffs in 2017 is to have Kamara find his form as he strives to repair his trade value. It might sound like wishful thinking, but that's really all either side has at this point. Burying Kamara on the bench might lead to even bigger headaches for the Revs, and simply parting ways with Kamara isn't an option. That is, unless Kamara made things untenable to the point where cutting him loose is unavoidable.
As enigmatic as Kamara may be, he isn't stupid. He knows his career is in the balance, and while his post-game tirade last week may not have done him any favors, maybe his public airing of concerns will take a weight off his chest and will allow him to focus on finishing the season in good form. A good finish to the season may not be enough to save the failed Kamara-Revs marriage, but it may be enough to help the two sides pave the way for a less-painful divorce this winter.