Ola Kamara bullish on starting spot with Columbus Crew SC

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Just over four months ago, Gregg Berhalter and Columbus Crew SC chose one Kamara over another in a move that would change their season.

Berhalter sent star striker Kei Kamara packing in May after the forward followed up his 22-goal season in 2015 with a big new contract, a disappointing start to this year and a public feud with fellow Designated Player Federico Higuain.

That left the lone striker role in the hands of Ola Kamara, the 26-year-old Norwegian who was acquired in the offseason to push Kei for the starting job. The new man responded almost immediately, scoring 10 goals in his first 11 matches after Kei’s departure, and allowing Berhalter to avoid signing a big-name striker in the summer transfer window.

While Columbus haven’t had the season they wanted, has Ola locked down the starting job? Given his stats, he sees that as a silly question.

“For a striker to score 13 goals and have two assists in [21] games, people don’t usually ask you that question,” he said.

Ola doesn’t enjoy the Kei comparisons, though he knows they’re inevitable. But he also doesn’t like the thought of Crew SC fans or others wondering whether the team will be bringing a new DP into the fray next season.

“A lot of [DP strikers] don’t [score]. Some of them are great and they do, but there aren’t a lot of strikers that have my scoring percentage per game,” he said. “I think sometimes we’re too stuck on names. In Europe, the name is made by doing well. If you’re a big name and you come in and don’t score in the first four or five games, you’re just getting pounded. The goals make the name, not the opposite.”

Berhalter has nothing but positive things to say about Ola. But while the coach believes the Norwegian “deserves a lot of credit for all those goals,” and that his forward understands Columbus' strategy well, Berhalter thinks the striker's production is at least partially a result of Crew SC's style.

“I’m a firm believer that the way we play is going to give our strikers goals, and now it’s about their skill set to be able to finish them off,” he said. “Kei was excellent at finishing off crosses and Ola is excellent at running behind the line and on-the-ground crosses. So either way, the way we play, our striker is going to be able to get chances if they get in the right positions.”

The club traded for forward Adam Jahn in July, and the newest striker in the Crew SC ranks feels the same way.

“All the hard work is done by my teammates,” Jahn said with a laugh. “They just cross the ball in, so it’s less of a burden. You don’t have to beat anyone by dribbling or anything. Just through teamwork, we’ll beat them. You see a lot of goals where it happens. We break them down and then it’s Justin [Meram] or Ola or Ethan [Finlay] in an easy spot to score. It takes a lot of pressure off the striker.”

That expectation doesn’t mean Berhalter values Ola any less. While the head coach admits that Crew SC will “look to improve” their forward stable for next season, the job seems Ola’s to lose.

“There was a time when we had no other options and he was the only guy, and he had to deal with that,” Berhalter said. “That’s a big burden, having to adjust to summer months in America and play all the minutes because we didn’t have a replacement. So he’s done great. He’s been producing, for the most part, this whole way. We’re really happy with what he’s been doing.”

For Ola, the talk about other strikers isn’t necessary. He doesn’t like comparing himself to anyone, let alone Kei. In fact, Ola said he doesn’t even know how many goals Kei has, though he will know the Sierra Leonean's weekend total given that Columbus welcome the New England Revolution to town on Sunday (7 pm ET, FS1 in the US and MLS LIVE in Canada) in a big Eastern Conference showdown.

Nonetheless, Ola is hoping that MLS will take notice to production and not be distracted by star power.

“MLS can never be very a big league if it’s always, ‘You’re doing well, but still we need a big name,’ rather than performance,” he said.