The Designated Player: The Indomitable Snowman, Part 1

Once seen as one of the league’s misfits, the Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara has found an unlikely home in Kansas City, where he has been at the heart of the Sporting Kansas City team transformed by coach Peter Vermes in the past three years. In the first of a two-part interview with Graham Parker, he and his coach explain why he never settled in at his previous clubs, the importance of mentors in his life, and his move to Kansas City. In Part 2, tomorrow, he talks about the fear of being cursed, his thoughts during the U.S. Open final, and the struggles of playing for the Leone Stars. Oh, and Vinnie Jones.

A snow day has been forecast in Maryland and the few kids who’ve arrived at school are now waiting for the buses that will take them home again. As they wait, snow starts to fall and one of their number hangs back and furtively puts his hand out to grab and taste his first snowflake. He doesn’t want the other teenagers to see — they’ve already been teasing him about his accent, and he is having enough trouble adjusting to his new life in America, without inviting further mockery at his reaction to a phenomenon they take for granted. “I wanted to feel it and I wanted to taste it, but I didn’t want anybody to see what I was doing.”

Jump forward a decade to a park in Kansas City, where Kei Kamara is diving headlong into a snowman in front of a Twitter-sourced crowd of Sporting Kansas City fans, whom he has invited to initiate him into the joys of snowball fights. Unlike the first melancholy scene in the snow, which was captured in the recent Copper Pot Pictures documentary KEI, a club video of the later date shows a young man thoroughly at ease with his surroundings and clearly loved by those around him, as he throws snowballs at fans and teammates alike, laughs and jokes, and learns ruefully just what week-old snowmen are made of: “So here’s me at full sprint and this thing’s like a brick wall …”

Jump forward again, to a stadium in New York last week, where Kamara and his strike partner and protégé, C.J. Sapong, are doing a full-blown synchronized Beyoncé routine to celebrate the latter’s goal for Sporting Kansas City, while moments later Kamara will be diving headlong again — this time at full stretch out on the turf after scoring another goal himself, to hand the New York Red Bulls their first home defeat of the season.

Suffice to say, these days Kamara wants you to see what he’s doing.

Earlier on the day of the New York game I had sat down with Kamara at the team hotel and tried to work out some of what had happened in the years between those moments — a period that saw an awkward teenage immigrant from civil-war-torn Sierra Leone transform into what his coach Peter Vermes calls “one of the most dangerous players in the league.” As becomes apparent, the growth curve was neither even, nor without apparent contradictions.

From the perspective of his three years of solid production and double-figure goal tallies as the heart of the SKC team, it seems hard to believe that Kamara once was known as a malcontent, but that was indeed the reputation that dogged him when Vermes moved for him on trade deadline day some three years ago. Kansas City was to become Kamara’s fourth club in four seasons. After college at Cal State Dominguez Hills, a post-draft period under then-coach Sigi Schmid at Columbus was followed by a stint with expansion San Jose, before John Spencer, impressed by what he’d seen on a Generation Adidas tour, convinced Dominic Kinnear to sign the young striker for Houston Dynamo. Then, as Kamara tells it, with his contract winding down at Houston, Kinnear was making encouraging noises about Kamara’s ambition to try out in Europe, but, at the last minute, Peter Vermes made his move to bring the player in — though not without a struggle:

“Peter Vermes called me to say he’d traded for me and I told him, ‘I’m not coming to Kansas City … and what you can do is you can call the two teams in L.A., and get me to L.A. I don’t have to play. I can sit there and be with my mom for the last couple of months of my contract and then go to Europe, because I’m going to try out.’ And he kept going, because he’s so stubborn, saying, ‘Why don’t you come in so we can have this conversation face to face?’ So I said, ‘Well it’s your money. You’re flying me, so if you want … fine.’ He flew me in, I trained the first day, and the guys in the locker room made me feel so welcome, so I said, ‘Well I guess I’ll be here for a little bit.’ Three years later I’m still in Kansas City.”

Despite his size and speed, at the time of his arrival at Sporting, Kamara had never quite found his niche as an MLS forward — the most goals he’d scored for any of his teams in any season up to that point was five. But Vermes had a feeling that the out-and-out striker could be converted to help lead his planned conversion of the team to a fluid 4-3-3, and he didn’t let Kamara’s initial antipathy to the Kansas City move, or the concerns that come with converting a player’s role, deter him:

“Sometimes you have to go with your gut and your instincts on what you think you can bring to the table, in terms of getting something out of a player,” said Vermes. “He’s very strong-minded. I know that at times as a player I was a little bit strong in my personality as well, but I also didn’t back down from the competition and the adversity aspects, and I think, in sports, to be successful, you have to have strong personalities within your team.”

Of course the kind of mental fortitude that Vermes sought — the kind that, as he puts it, “might bend but doesn’t break” — could also be the kind of fortitude that resists change, particularly when it comes to his role on the field, but in this instance, Vermes’s instincts about the player who would help him “change the culture of the club” and thrive in his new role on the field, proved correct:

“In the middle of the park, you get put up against the other big guy and you have to play with your back to the goal — but when he’s on the outside, it’s a physical mismatch, but also he gets the chance to just face up on people a lot of the time. And when he does and he can play it or move into space, he’s one of the most dangerous players in the league when he gets out into the open field. But the other part is his maturity. He’s really matured a tremendous amount since he’s come to us and I really give him that credit. To change position like that your attitude has to be right and you have to be open to that. And that could relate back to the fact that he’d been traded that many times, and maybe he realized that, ‘There’s something I’m not doing.’ When you see the story of his life, you see everything the guy has been through … he had to find a place and people that he could trust and I think that he has that today.”

Kamara’s past is invoked a lot when the player’s name comes up — sometimes with a rather pat positivism that tries to explain him as purely a product of that traumatic civil war in Sierra Leone. It’s not that such a version of events doesn’t include very profound influences on the man, but it tends to underplay his life in America, and the significant role that mentorship has played at key moments in that life, both toward and from him, as he negotiates both his present and his heritage. Kamara might be giggling when he talks of telling C.J. Sapong that he had to share his Rookie of the Year money “because I helped him win it,” but there’s serious pride on his part for the role he played in guiding the younger man through experiences he’d gone through himself. When I talk to Sapong later, he speaks gratefully of the “big brother” role Kamara has played for him — encouraging him to trust his instincts, even as the older player helps distill the collective and occasionally contradictory advice coming from other well-meaning senior pros and coaches. When Sapong recently broke a 12-game goal-scoring drought, nobody was more thrilled than Kamara, who’d been easing him through the period with his own accounts of goalless stretches as a young pro: “I told him, ‘Don’t stress out about the goals, because then it’s not going to come. Your job’s to get in the right positions. One’s going to fall just right.’” Hours after he tells me this, Sapong will score that crucial opening goal against New York, prompting the pair’s Beyoncé routine.

I ask Kamara how important mentoring has been for him. He’s emphatic in his response:

“It’s big when you can have a mentor in your life. Everybody needs it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you really need these influences … For me, growing up in Africa during the civil war, my older brothers were definitely my role models. I followed their footsteps and wanted to be like them, and then when I came to the U.S., people took me under their wings because of soccer. This is nothing against my mom — my mom just worked so hard and was always at work, but I’m out in L.A. playing and my coach from my local club team, Manhattan Beach Hurricanes, just took me as a son. He didn’t have a kid, so he’d pick me up from home to go training, to go to games — so when I’m seeing somebody go out of their way to spend all this time with me, it put it in my head to really try to prove something to this person. Then going to college, my college coach, his wife, his kids, just grabbed me and made me part of their family too. And when I have all these people doing all these things for me, it showed me that I definitely have a place to go and people believe in me.

“When I was playing in Columbus, I had one of the best mentors in the game, Ezra Hendrickson, who’s the assistant coach at Seattle now. I lived with him and I admired him. He’d been in the league around 10 or 11 years at that time when we were roommates and I’d always ask him, ‘How’ve you been in this for so long?’ He was maybe close to 35 and he was still playing and came to training every day so happy, with a big smile on his face … I started learning his ways — it’s just about being happy — and he really put me in the right place when it comes to soccer. When I’m mad, saying ‘I’m not playing’ and stuff, he’d say, ‘Just be happy, man. Just keep playing your game and going up field. Doesn’t matter what day it is.’ To this day I call those guys and talk to them — my college coach, my club coach — one of my brothers passed away so I can’t talk to him, but I have another one that I talk to a lot — but all these people who were mentors to me, the things they gave me brought me to where I am now, and I don’t stop talking to them. It’s a gift and you have to pass it on.”

That sense of guidance and belonging seems crucial to Kamara — and without speculating on what happened at other clubs, there’s a telling moment when I speak to Vermes and he talks about the rare occasions he’s had to correct the player:

“Not everything’s been great, right. There have been times when he’s fallen off the path a little bit and when that happens I don’t say, ‘I’m going to trade you.’ I say, ‘I’m not going to play you today and you need to figure out how to get back out there. I’ll help you, but I’m not going to give you the easy way out by sending you somewhere else. You’ve got to do that here, because this is where you are.’ I think it’s different than running into problems and saying, ‘Right, you’re out of here.’ I’m not willing to do that, because of the qualities of the player, sure, but also the qualities of the person.”

I think about a glimpse of that person offered by Twitter the day before — a series of tweeted photos documenting a training-ground prank played on teammate Oriol Rossell (Kamara is infamous for such practical jokes), followed immediately by an appeal for the school Kamara is trying to help build back in Sierra Leone. Kamara seems to segue between these two modes utterly unself-consciously, and perhaps what warms people to him is that in among the impulsiveness that perhaps played a part in his early peripatetic career, there’s an unforced generosity, too: “There’s this jokester part of me, but there’s this part of me that I wish when I was a kid that I had professional athletes that I saw on television, that we run after, [who] would come over and mingle with us. I don’t feel that I have to separate myself from people.”

We pause the interview so he can text Sapong to bring him breakfast (seniority has its perks). As he’s engrossed in his phone I look over at one of the most dangerous players in the league. I think about the player who had painted his mouth guard in such a way that he had Nelson Rodriguez, the chair of the MLS disciplinary committee, diving for his phone in front of a game feed, to demand of Vermes, “Tell me he’s not wearing fangs …” He’s hunched over in his chair, head pushed forward at that familiar angle that makes him look like he’s examining everything for the first time — knowing he’d laugh it off if he he’s caught doing so. And I think about the kid sneaking his first look at the snow.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

Filed Under: Graham Parker, MLS, Soccer