Back where it all started, Kei Kamara embracing return to Columbus Crew SC

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When Columbus Crew SC forward Kei Kamara notched his first goal of the young MLS season on March 14 against Toronto FC, it was a fitting symbol of his homecoming.

Nearly eight years after leaving the Black and Gold, Kamara trotted out one of his famous celebrations, posing in old Crew hard hats, a symbol of the club before their rebrand, along with a group of fans.  

Yes, Kamara has clearly settled back into the club where he began his career, scoring in his MLS debut as a 21-year-old rookie in 2006. Back then, he failed to crack the regular starting lineup in two seasons with the Crew and moved on to play for three other MLS clubs, most notably Kansas City, before heading to Europe. Now in his second stint in Columbus and expected to be a starter, Kamara says he loves being back.

“The last time I was here [as a visiting player], I probably got booed and called a Columbus reject,” he said with a laugh after last Saturday’s win. “But now, to put on the black and gold felt really, really good.”

Even since Gregg Berhalter and Crew SC made a move for Kamara last year, his return has been a long time in the making.

Released from his contract with English Championship side Middlesborough too late to participate in the 2014 MLS season, Kamara joined Columbus in October but could only train with the team. He was forced to watch the Crew's run to the Eastern Conference playoffs from the sidelines.

So in the months leading up to the 2015 season, Kamara made a commitment to work as hard as possible.

“I was itching to play last year in the playoffs,” he said. “So going into preseason, I just worked hard to prove to the coach that I’m ready to play, I’m ready to be part of the team. At the moment, I’m still trying to do the same thing.”

While Columbus seem to be flowing well on the field, outshooting two opponents 39-19, Kamara is not ready to get complacent.

“For me, I really feel like I need to click some more with the guys around here, the guys who have been here longer,” he said. “Hopefully, when that gels really well, we can see a lot more positivity on the field.”

Kamara’s commitment to his teammates is one of his most important qualities. Berhalter and others in the locker room rave about what the striker means to the club off of the field. While Kamara knows the club is depending on his scoring up top, he knows he’s not responsible for all of it.

“You do feel a little bit of tension saying you’re the striker and knowing they brought you in to score goals,” he said. “But like I said before, I’m not the only one that’s going to score goals. That showed on Saturday. … If I can attract defenders and distract people and open up space for my teammates and they can score goals for me, I’m really happy about that.”

Kamara’s new role in Columbus isn’t just about scoring. He’s become one of the most marketable and recognizable personalities in the city. While many players shy away from the spotlight, Kamara embraces that part of his job.

“Hopefully it’s going to be bigger; I want it to be bigger,” he said of the spotlight. “I want the limelight to be bigger. I don’t mind it; I enjoy all that. I enjoy the media attention; I enjoy everything off the field.

“You work hard at training and you work hard at games and you want to be recognized for the stuff you do. So the more we can make it bigger and the more the city knows about the team, the more they respect the players on and off the field. That’s one of my goals. I enjoy it.”

Kamara has only been in Columbus for less than a year, but he’s had plenty of time to think about his England experience with Norwich City and Middlesborough, where he didn’t find the footing he hoped. While he appreciates the chance he had and still follows his former teams, he said he wasn’t content to spend time on the bench, even in England.

“For me, it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to work out,” he said. “I wasn’t going to just sit there and think, ‘I’m going to keep pushing myself (rather than playing),’ when I know I’m at my prime in my career and I can play in one of the best leagues in the world. MLS is growing, and I’m really excited to be back and continue to be an impact in the league."