HOUSTON – Skeleton gloves, a mouthpiece complete with fangs, a bleached goatee, heart-shaped hands and, oh, the celebrations. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Kei Kamara was the definition of self-absorbed.
In the past, the urge to judge the Sporting KC forward by his admittedly colorful personality might have led some to label him selfish. And, as Kamara will even admit, perhaps that wasn’t always so far off the mark – on the field at least.
But that’s certainly not the player who will line up against the Houston Dynamo on Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium (3:30 pm ET, NBC, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. This is an older, wiser version of Kamara, and he’s more productive than ever before.
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“Let’s say he scores a goal and there’s some celebration to the side, it’s very easy for someone to point the finger and say, ‘Hey, look at him. That guy is all about himself,’” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said. “That’s his enthusiasm for the game and team. When we don’t get the result that we want, he’s one of the guys in the locker room that’s not happy.
“And it’s not that he’s not happy and blaming someone else, he’s not happy because we didn’t get the result and he’s competitive. That’s what most people don’t see.”
Sure, the celebrations haven’t slowed down – it helps he set a career high in goals this season with 11 in league play – and he’s still the owner of some of MLS’ most flamboyant accessories, but Kamara’s clearly come into his own in Kansas City.
He’s bought into Vermes’ system after some initial skepticism, embracing the extra responsibility that comes with plying his trade on the flank, and become one of MLS’ most productive wingers, a matchup nightmare for outside backs with his size, speed, technical ability and aerial dominance.
In truth, he’s always had the talent, but now that his mentality has caught up to his prodigious physical gifts, opposing defenses have found Kamara nearly impossible to slow down.
“I’m more mature in the game now. I see a lot more than I used to see before,” said Kamara, who also set a career high this season in assists with eight. “I’m not trying so hard to score goals like I usually used to because with that I was only focused on one thing. Now I’m focused on defending, creating stuff for the guys around me. When you’re doing all the other things, [goals] just fall into place.”
Of course, he hasn’t always thought that way, as his partner in many a celebration will attest.
“He used to have kind of a ‘Kei against the world’ mentality,” C.J. Sapong said. “… He’s shifted more toward the team and trying to gain the [win] rather than scoring a goal or making a crazy fantastic run.”
But, make no mistake, Kamara’s maturation process hasn’t exactly curtailed his efforts to ripple the back of the net. He leads MLS in shots with 134 this season, a career high by 43, and is second in shots on goal (49) behind Chris Wondolowski – but he’s gradually realized he has much more to offer the game than goal scoring.
That hasn’t escaped anyone who’s watched Kansas City play this season, including Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who sent Kamara north almost four years ago and is tasked with slowing the Sierra Leone international over two legs on Sunday and Wednesday.
“In the last year and half he’s come on a ton,” Kinnear said. “For me, he’s one of the better players in MLS – strong, I think he understands when to release the ball and when to run with it, good passer of the ball and works hard on the other side of it, too.”
Both Corey Ashe, who’s had a few notable clashes with his former teammate in the past, and Kofi Sarkodie figure to match up with Kamara on Sunday, battles that could determine which team heads to Kansas City in poll position.
And although it’s taken a few years to drive home the value of versatility to Kamara himself, Vermes certainly has the type of team-oriented leader he envisioned when he sent Abe Thompson and allocation money to the Dynamo in 2009 for the then-unproven striker.
“Sometimes players don’t realize how much of an impact they have themselves. I tried to explain to him that he is a much bigger role-model persona within our group than maybe he believes,” Vermes said. “I think that he’s really taken that to heart and made sure the rest of the guys are on top of their games. You can’t ask those guys to do something if you’re not doing it, and I think he realizes that.”