National Writer: Charles Boehm

Kei Kamara on record-setting career: "I still have so much in the tank to give"


WASHINGTON – At this point there are dozens of signposts by which to measure, and marvel at, Kei Kamara’s incredible longevity.

The striker is actually more than a year older than Wayne Rooney, his coach at Wednesday night’s MLS All-Star Game presented by Target (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

“He gives me some shtick, that's for sure,” revealed Kamara of Rooney after Tuesday’s All-Stars training session on the National Mall. “Like right when I saw him, he started putting pressure on me right away. It’s fun.”

Kamara’s previous All-Star experience took place in 2015, when there were 20 teams in the league and Gregg Berhalter was his manager at Columbus Crew. Now playing for Chicago Fire FC, the prolific goalscorer from Sierra Leone will mark his 39th birthday in a few weeks; his young Fire teammate and protégé Brian Gutiérrez was two years old when Kamara was selected by the Crew in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft.

Rest assured he's not done, either.

“I still got juice in the tank, man,” Kamara told with a laugh after the All-Stars’ training on Monday. “I'm enjoying every minute. It's weird, you know, I tell the guys around me – or they ask me – like, are you going to go a few more years? Because that's what they see. And I say, I don't know, I mean, I love every day, and I'm coming here and I want to work.

“At some point, you have to start thinking about what's next. But I don't want to cheat myself, and feel like just because of age or what you see in a number, you're going to put yourself on the side or take your physical abilities away. So I feel good in my locker room, and I feel like I'm helping the team. And for sure, I still got a little bit more left in the tank.”

A once-in-a-lifetime reunion

That tank might just be fuller when he returns to the Windy City after an emotional, inspirational All-Star experience. Kamara, his wife Kristin and their three children recently welcomed his father from Sierra Leone for his first-ever visit to the United States, which naturally included the elder Kamara's first time seeing his son play here in person.

So when Fire coach Frank Klopas surprised Kei at a team meeting with the news he’d been named an All-Star via Commissioner’s Pick by Don Garber, that made it possible for dad to join the family on the trip to D.C. On Tuesday, it all hit another level when President Joe Biden made an unscheduled drop-in on the All-Stars’ visit to the White House, including a face-to-face chat with both Kamara men.

“My father, for the first time he's in America to watch me play, and he's 77 years old. And just to go into the White House, he's a week in America and you're standing next to one of the most powerful human beings in the world,” said Kei on Tuesday.

“To me, those are accomplishments. It's not about the game, but it's about those moments. My three kids are here. I could have made any other All-Star team, but at this point in my career, making this one is really special.”

The fairytale journey

Kamara’s life was already long ago the stuff of Hollywood scripts. Relocating from Sierra Leone to the United States as a teenage refugee fleeing his homeland’s brutal civil war, he played NCAA Division II soccer at Cal State Dominguez Hills, right next door to the LA Galaxy’s home, today called Dignity Health Sports Park, and worked on the stadium’s operations staff to earn extra money.

He’s credited the late, great Sigi Schmid for taking a chance on him with that SuperDraft pick after Schmid recalled him playing SoCal high-school soccer against his son. The ensuing journey took him to a whopping 10 MLS clubs, English sides Norwich City and Middlesbrough and even a stint in Finland with HIFK.

Perhaps some face time with POTUS for him and his dad just fits into the remarkable saga.

“We're in Chicago one week and then we're in the White House,” reflected Kamara, who’s tasted triumph and heartbreak, but never a World Cup, with the Sierra Leone national team. “And he's seeing the President. I mean, these are the achievements, these are the World Cups that I'm going to win. If I'm not playing the World Cup, those are my World Cups.”

The biggest Kamara factoid of them all: His 144 career regular-season goals and counting. His next tally will draw him level with Landon Donovan at second place on the league’s all-time scoring list, and inch him a step closer to his former Houston Dynamo FC teammate Chris Wondolowski’s MLS-best 171 strikes.

“It’s special, man. It’s special,” said Kamara, who has a kinship with Wondo as a fellow outsider who made it from a Division II program to the pros. “I wanted to win an MLS Cup. That's what I always wanted to do, but not really to say, I want to break Landon's record or Wondo’s record. But the closer you get, the more family and friends are calling you and say, ‘well, you're close, you're close.’ So right now, yes, it's on my mind. Because when you need two goals, or one goal, you have to be thinking about it to get it out the way.”

An eager mentor

With 5g/1a in his first season with Chicago, Kamara is still doing the business, still eager to run, scrap and challenge defenders. He’s also still providing guidance and inspiration to younger teammates like Gutiérrez, just as he’s done at many of his previous stops with others who've since made the leap overseas: Alphonso Davies (FC Bayern Munich), Matt Turner (Arsenal FC), Auston Trusty (Arsenal FC) and Ismaël Koné (Watford FC).

“I've been around, for example, like Ezra Hendrickson, I’ve been around Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario; all those guys always gave me something,” explained Kamara, lighting up when the topic of mentorship is raised. “So that's why later on, I wanted to be like the elder statesman, and make sure that I was giving back to most of these guys.

“But you can't do that without leading by example. And that's what I'm doing when I'm there training every day, I'm working hard.”

That includes using physical output data to tease extra commitment from the Fire’s rising homegrown starlet.

“Right now, my closest one is Brian Gutiérrez, and I love working with this guy – and my son loves him too,” he said. “But when I can bust his balls every once in a while and say, ‘Hey, look, my speed was faster than yours. And I ran more miles than you.’ In the next game, he comes and tells me the same thing. That's how you motivate the younger guys around you.”

Balancing family and career

Kamara landed in Chicago in large part because the page suddenly turned on the impressive project he was part of under Wilfried Nancy at CF Montréal last season. His veteran presence among young talents like Koné, Djordje Mihailovic and Alistair Johnston helped produce the club’s best-ever MLS campaign, though it all changed when those three were sold to European clubs and Nancy moved on to Columbus.

“My career, man. Ten different teams. But I always tend to bounce [back], because I love the game, I'm positive about the moves,” said Kamara. “Montréal, we had such a good thing going in everything, on the field, off the field. But at the same time, I don't have much control over these things. Because we're still trying to find a home for me and my family, and place that I can see myself to finish my career. And that's the hunt.

“I'm still in Chicago, but I still have, what, six months left in my deal. But that's what I want to focus on. Being with the younger players, influencing younger players to have the next generation that's coming into the US soccer or American soccer or MLS, have an influence towards that. And that's what I've been trying to get to. Obviously, I didn't see that in my moving forward over there [in Montréal], so I had to move. And Chicago has been good so far. Hopefully, I can make it better. But I still don't know.”

Amid all those teams, all those goals, having his family with him has all too often been the exception rather than the rule. Kristin and their kids Kierin, Kendrick and Kaelan are living in the Kansas City area to provide stability for the young ones, and even regular visits to Chicago can’t vanquish the emotional toll that entails.

“My wife! I don't manage it, she does,” said Kamara when asked how he deals with the situation. “Serious, three kids, it's not easy what she does. Obviously, she gives me the motivation to do what I do on the field too, where I'm at, because I know I have to represent them. I want to wake up every morning with them, giving them a kiss before I leave the house. Yes, that's hard mentally, but at the same time, there is a goal that I have to get to.”

That’s not so much about the scoring record or other honors as the simple desire to make sure he’s given everything he has, and carried this adventure as far as he can.

“It's continuing my legacy in the league,” he said. “I don't want to just wave bye-bye and get out when I know I still have so much in the tank to give. And [Kristin] supports me to that say, I don't need you to stop, I need you to keep doing what you're doing, [even] if it's not going to work with this team. But go do it. Because I don't want you to wake up in the morning with regrets, to say you wish you would have done that.”