Kei Kamara interview: Century club to the next level – The show won’t stop for Rapids forward

Photo: Colorado Rapids

The goals put Kei Kamara in elite company in Major League Soccer history, alongside a celebration back catalogue born out of showmanship that may just serve him long into the future. Off and running with a debut Colorado Rapids strike, that all-elusive championship would be the diamond piece on his platinum path, but he plans for the show to go on way past the on-field outro.

From a childhood many can appreciate but precious few truly comprehend, Kei Kamara has gone on to carve a soccer career full of lessons, but above all, life. The Sierra Leone international has never been shy to say his piece and he continues to be one of the foremost, bona fide MLS characters.

The stats confirm that of all the players to take the field in the league’s 23 years, there are only five names ahead of him in the scoring stakes. He was off and running for Colorado Rapids just 15 minutes into his competitive debut earlier this month, darting between two Portland Timbers defenders to finish at the back post from Kellyn Acosta’s cross in a snow-smothered game that, at 18 °Fahrenheit (almost -8 °Celsius), goes down as the coldest in MLS history.

As he got the scoring underway in the 3-3, the ‘heart-shaped hands’ gesture was there, for his foundation that began in 2012 to give scholarships to schools and students in Sierra Leone. His celebrations down the years, though, have been a selection box, with music often an inspiration in some way.

With his 113th MLS goal, that Portland effort means he has left 112 behind…but the 90s/2000s r&b link will never die! It is right there as Kei recalls the first music he remembers buying.

“That’s a hot question for the first one! I’ll probably say Usher, ‘Confessions’ album.”

In amongst the celebration archives, there has been more than one nod to St. Patrick’s Day, a hard hat-assisted recreation of the original Columbus Crew logo, while Norwich City teammate Sébastien Bassong was just one of his dance partners. It is in such moments that the intense pursuit of being victorious – trying to win a tackle, break away from a marker, cling on to three points, even earn a place in the line-up – just politely steps aside for a player to bask in the euphoria with those around them.

The importance of on-field results is obvious, but Kei also places eternal value on the fun to be had from pranks and any available mood-lightener there may be. He has cherished some of the bonds he has enjoyed through his career to now and music has been a uniting force along the road.

Here in 2019, the power of it has not faded a jot for the Rapids number 23.

“To me, music is the light, onto everything. People from different cultures who are not speaking the same language, you put music on and everybody can vibe to it.

“It’s just like everybody not speaking the same language being able to get together and play soccer. For us (at the Rapids), we have music on in the morning before training to get the locker room going, or after a great victory, coming in and playing music.

“Even going out with the boys, we’re always looking for somewhere where there’s good DJs, good music, so we can enjoy it together. Music is everything; it brings the life into a lot of dull moments.”

Colorado Rapids

Having spent some time in Maryland, it was Hawthorne, California where Kei went to high school, and as tough as it is to believe about a 6 foot 3 forward, he was 5’8” then. As anyone who knows his story will by now be well aware of, it is West Africa and not America’s West Coast where he originally hails from.

Before coming to the U.S., he had grown up in Sierra Leone, a country in the grip of a civil war from the time Kei was six years old, up until January 2002. He had briefly been in The Gambia and arrived in America as a 16-year-old.

Alongside the soccer connection he already had, Kei recalls developing an interest in skateboarding in Cali, and he would go to events to watch. The former California State University, Dominguez Hills captain featured in the 2015 MLS All-Star win (2-1) over Tottenham Hotspur, which was hosted by his current club. After noticing a Rapids-branded longboard, a member of the club staff said he would get the Columbus Crew forward one, which was a promise that was duly kept.

His Rapids board came to mind as soon as his agent mentioned the 2010 MLS Cup winners’ desire to bring him in after last season. An interest that was sparked as a teen in Cali, connecting him via soccer to what has since become his new home.

Sierra Leone is, though, where his roots will always run deepest, and he returns frequently on vacation and to give back to the community. Kei has represented them numerous times as a senior international over the past 11 years, and as well as his athleticism, but more interestingly perhaps, the 13-year professional attributes some of his longevity to a Sierra Leonean staple – rice. How’s that for sports science?

Alongside hip-hop – the likes of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Drake earned a mention in his recent conversation with Urban Pitch – some rhythmic flavour from his homeland dominates for Kei at present.

“My favourite acts right now are more so artists from Sierra Leone; Afrobeats is growing around the world. I’m more close to things from Sierra Leone.

“Not many people know their names. Drizilik is an artist I’m currently listening to.”

The ninth pick in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, Kei was a scorer on his professional debut for Columbus Crew (in a 3-1 loss at the Kansas City Wizards), though he says it was not until his stint with Houston Dynamo in his mid-20s that he developed a real, thorough understanding of the professional game. There have been a couple of occasions when he has unknowingly left a championship-bound team. Crew won MLS Cup in 2008, with Kei having departed after the 2007 season, and despite him scoring eight times in 16 games for Sporting Kansas City in 2013, he was a Middlesbrough player when they became champions that December.

He had left for Championship side Boro in September 2013 after also playing in England for Norwich City earlier that year, before linking up again with Sporting KC in between. Playing in the Premier League for Norwich meant the accomplishing of an undoubted dream.

His solitary goal in Canaries colours, at a stadium in Carrow Road which has a very good chance of being a top-flight venue once again next season, was against Everton. As Kei may have alluded to in recent times, it came against now-Colorado colleague Tim Howard.

That was pretty memorable, but his days in England did bring another stadium memory to savour.

“There was a Bruno Mars concert that I went to in England when I lived there. It was pretty amazing; probably one of the best concerts I’ve been to.

“Also, a Jamaican festival that they have in Los Angeles; it was amazing to see people like Beenie Man and a lot of other Jamaican artists.”

As his celebrations show, much to the referee’s dislike in October 2016 as he was yellow-carded for twerking after scoring for New England Revolution – Kei loves to dance, and to treat the game as a stage whenever possible. Given he can count nine pro clubs (along with Orange County Blue Star in the USL Premier Development League) on his resume, it would be a fairly safe bet to assume he has had to sing for his teammates as a new player at some point.

So, how many times has such a task presented itself?

“A lot! I’ve had to sing most of the times I’ve joined a team.

“My favourite one I have to say was when I went to Norwich, and my first interaction with the guys at the team meal was in Abu Dhabi, and I was called up to sing. I did Adele – ‘Someone Like You.’”

After joining a Colorado team itching to improve dramatically on a 2018 season that saw them miss the play-offs by 18 points, the Kenema native is also relishing the opportunity to live in Denver. His four-year spell in Kansas City stands out for him, not just for being by far the most settled period of his career, but for the enjoyment and attachment he felt to his surroundings and the companionship created.

The 113 MLS goals have encompassed the times he has lived in cities like Boston, Vancouver, and after eight years away, Columbus was where he returned to enjoy his most spectacular scoring season to date, with 22 MLS goals (26 overall) tying him as the league’s leading scorer with Toronto FC’s former Juventus star Sebastian Giovinco.

The man with 44 assists in his MLS career says he also likes to lend a hand in the sound stakes, as he responds to the question of where the vibe was most on point, in terms of locker-room music.

“Everywhere…because I take the music with me! So everywhere I’ve been, the locker room is vibing.”

That said, however, there is a new twist.

“At the moment, I’m not the DJ here. We put the responsibility to some of the younger guys at the Rapids to be the DJ, so Cole Bassett is the youngest player on the team roster, and he’s the team DJ.

“He’s been doing good so far.”

In that aforementioned snowstorm of a 3-3 with Portland, it was rookie Andre Shinyashiki who was there to grab a point in the dying moments. On Anthony Hudson’s roster, there are a few names who fit the description of experienced pro very well, who can offer tutelage to their emerging prospects. For this next scenario, Kei would call in another of the seasoned vets, alongside a Scottish winger who is a decade younger, but with plenty of know-how of his own as a former Heart of Midlothian and Minnesota United man.

If Kei ever had to record a song, with the condition of any career teammate(s) to feature on the track with him, whose services would be required in the studio?

“Oh wow. I would choose Benny Feilhaber and Sam Nicholson.”

In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, Kei touched upon an ambition of going into acting, or generally, the entertainment industry one day. While soccer is also very much the entertainment industry, a successful step into TV or movies would be quite an accomplishment for Kei – but why not? As his Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said: “He’s always had big plans about what he wanted to do.”

How serious is he about genuinely trying to pursue such endeavours when the end credits finally roll on his playing days?

“No, it’s definitely something I want to do. Living in Vancouver was great, and being called the ‘Hollywood North,’ I started taking my acting classes.

“I would like to enrol in acting classes in Denver.”

There is a great deal to be said for finding yourself in a place that is truly in line with where you want to be. It has been suggested with some credibility, however, that for a profession, soccer, for all its magic, is somewhat unique in that it largely gives grown adults no true say in where they may be headed.

In the lead-up to this season, Kei spoke of the importance of feeling wanted, which resonated with him when he talked to Colorado. He alluded to it in an interview feature with the Rapids’ radio analyst and former pro player Jordan Angeli, who shared her own wonderfully music-infused voyage on here in 2014.

Kei came to Colorado as one of 20 Vancouver Whitecaps players who did not return for the club this season. He admitted feeling shocked, having contributed 14 goals (17 overall) and six assists in MLS to finish as the Caps’ top scorer in 2018. Nevertheless, it has opened the door to a Rocky Mountain chapter for Kei, his wife Kristin, and their three-year-old daughter Kierin and one-year-old son Kendrick (not forgetting their dog Chelsea).

That 2015 season ended in the 2-1 MLS Cup loss to Portland in which Kei had pulled a goal back in the first half in Columbus, and though it had been a terrific year, it is much harder to reflect with such fondness when it ends in those circumstances. That stellar season came off the back of Kei’s Middlesbrough spell, which brought four goals in the first two months of 2013/14 under Tony Mowbray and latterly, caretaker boss Mark Venus, but ultimately, it was not quite the beautiful romance both parties had wished for.

Four years on from his departure from the Teesside club, fighting again this season to return to the Premier League, Kei looks back on whether the frustrations still allowed him to enjoy his time there.

“It was amazing going to Norwich and getting a very good taste of English football. I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect going in to Middlesbrough; it’s one of those where I didn’t know much of the background and how much the city really sacrifice for their team.

“It didn’t go quite how I expected, I wasn’t able to score 20 goals, but the players, the staff and the people around the club really welcomed me. I don’t regret anything, but I wish I could go back around and make it better, score more goals and make the people happier.

“That’s how it was with Columbus, where my first time around was five goals, and my second time was 26 goals. I wish I could do that again for Middlesbrough.

“The fans love their team so much and I just wish it could have been better.”

Rapids coach Anthony Hudson has told how Kei will say what needs to be said, but always with the team in mind. He will undoubtedly go down as a memorable figure in MLS, with his ‘heart on the sleeve’ nature a vital component in ensuring that.

He laughs a little when asked about any misconceptions, myths or untrue rumours he feels may have been linked to him over the years.

“With the information that does go out sometimes, there’s always more to go with it, and it would make a decent book, where I can go deeply into that, but the people and players that I’ve been around in dressing rooms know who Kei Kamara really is. The rumours and misconceptions, as you say, whether it’s good or bad, I can’t really describe those and say whether they were false, because I don’t know all the information that goes out, but one thing I can say is the coaches and players I’ve been around, they know who the true Kei is.”

Photo: Colorado Rapids

Tim Howard said Colorado do not want to be happy with ‘just squeaking into the playoffs’ this year, and it is really that purpose and shared direction that can be so tough for someone to lose when all is done for a playing career. There is way more to it than the results on field, and as well as going all out to enjoy the moment, using his status to help with projects like building schools back home has been of paramount importance for Kei.

With compatriot Michael Lahoud, another to feature on here during his time with Philadelphia Union in 2012, Kei was involved in the building of the Education for All Primary School for disadvantaged children in Allen Town, East End Freetown four years ago. He has been involved with Schools for Salone since 2005, which has helped rebuild schools and libraries in Sierra Leone, and was awarded the MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year for 2015.

Such work can continue long after Kei has scored his last goal, but if he stepped away from soccer today, what did he learn?

“Well I’d be sad if it ended today, but I would have learned that it’s been the best thing for me in giving me the platform in life. Learn to build family wherever you go, and respect that the professional environment is sometimes business and nothing personal.”

While that chase for a championship goes on, it is necessary to say that Kei scored a penalty in the game and stepped up to put his team’s first away in the shootout when Sporting Kansas City won the 2012 Open Cup in front of their fans against the Seattle Sounders. He said at Columbus, though, that he would give all his goals to win an MLS Cup with them.

It is nine years since the Rapids won their solitary title, and maybe this will be the time it comes together again – nobody would be more delighted than their hot-stepping frontman. In MLS’ 100-goal club, there are only 11 names, but this final scene is even more exclusive still.

This regular closing question asks for a sample selection of the teammates who have left a lasting impression on the interviewee through their career. The scenario is a fantasy 5-a-side game, so we need four players Kei has played with that he knows he would enjoy having on his team here.

From a guy who comes from Sierra Leone, who worked to create a great life in the U.S., playing in multi-national locker rooms on both sides of the Atlantic, it fits well that he went for a truly international selection for this one. We have four countries and three continents represented, starting with the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

“There’s a guy that I played with in Columbus, who was my mentor at the same time, Ezra Hendrickson (defender). At Norwich, the best, skilful, technical player was Wes Hoolahan (midfielder).

“He would be part of that squad, and Didier Drogba (forward), definitely. I didn’t play with him but he has to be! He was just my idol, and finally, Mohamed Kallon (forward), from my national team.”

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