After a loan spell in England, Kei Kamara happy to be home in K.C.
In late January of this year, Sporting Kansas City president Robb Heineman wrote a letter. The subject rang bittersweet to him, and he knew it would to the letter's audience as well. Heineman opened in just about the most direct way possible.
"So," he began, addressing his club's fans en masse. "I wanted to write you a note about Kei."
By that time, most fans already knew. Kei Kamara, the club's leading scorer from the previous three seasons, was going on loan to Norwich City of the English Premier League. He would be there for a minimum of 10 games, after which the English club would have the option to make the transfer permanent.
It isn't unusual for MLS' brightest talents to head abroad. But few of them get the "open letter" treatment directly from their club's president.
"In addition to being a great player for us, Kei is also a great friend of mine," Heineman told SI.com. "I know the fans love him, and I know that on a very personal level because my eight and seven-year-old love him, too. [Writing the letter] just seemed like the right thing to do."
In it, Heineman explained why the gregarious, joyful player fans had bonded with over snowball fights and goal celebrations would be moving away. Why fans would no longer be seeing him out on the town, probably getting a burrito at Chipotle or walking his dog, almost always willing to chat and take a picture. This, he insisted, was a win-win for all parties. And no matter how events transpired in the future, chances were Kei wasn't going away completely.
"This is my home," Kamara says now. "Kansas City will always be my home now, whether it's for soccer or just family-wise. My fiancé is from here, I enjoy playing in MLS. Kansas City has a really big part of me now."
So how does a player with a love for home but ambition for something greater move on?
Kristin Bock can now say she knows a bit about the process. Bock, a youth soccer coordinator with Sporting and its sideline reporter on local TV broadcasts, met Kamara shortly after he was traded to the then-Wizards through Columbus Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum -- the husband of her good friend from college. By the start of the following season Kamara and Bock were dating. Now, the couple are engaged.
"When Kei got to Kansas City, it was 'All right, I'm going to stick it out for the season and then I'm gone,'" Bock says. Kamara had trials with multiple European clubs before the 2010 MLS season, but a strong appeal from Kansas City manager Peter Vermes convinced him to stay in the heartland. "Now he's like 'I can't even imagine playing anywhere else in MLS.' It was a huge 180."
Finding a productive home on the field certainly helped. In his previous MLS stops, Kamara was pigeonholed as a pure "Number nine" striker. His tall, lanky frame and impressive athletic ability alone indicated he would excel in that position. Vermes saw things differently.
"If you look at when he was at Columbus, San Jose, and Houston, his highest production was 4 goals," Vermes said, referring to Kamara's previous MLS stops -- where he played primarily as a target striker. Instead, Vermes envisioned Kamara as a hyper-physical wing forward, able to control lofted balls from the middle of the field and turn them, one way or another, into scoring chances. "I said 'If you play for us in that position, I guarantee you you're going to score in double digits."
From the wing, Kamara scored 10 goals in 2010, nine in 2011, and 11 in 2012 -- the kind of sustained production that attracts the eyes of bigger clubs.
One week into preseason training with Sporting Kansas City, Kamara got a call from his agent, Shaun Higgins. Higgins asked if Kamara would be interested in going out on loan. Kamara said yes, provided it was at a good place.
Higgins called back later that day. The head scout and chief executive at Norwich City wanted to bring Kamara on board. Vermes and Heineman took some convincing.
"Listen, I was the last guy that wanted to see one of my impact players go away for 10 games. I think that's an observation that can be made by just about anybody," Vermes says today. "But as a club, we can't expect our players to be ambitious, but then never provide the opportunity. I said 'Don't worry about [us], go give it your best shot. If you end up staying, congratulations, that's great. But if not, we're here with open arms ready to welcome you back. You're in a win-win."
Kamara packed his bags and left his club, the fans that would greet him on the street, his fiancé, their dog, and the city they all called home for an incredible opportunity in an unfamiliar place. Therein lay the challenge.
"He bounced around in MLS but he finally got settled, not just on the field but off the field," says Bock "Having a sense of home and support around him just..." she pauses. "Completes everything."
As a club, Norwich did much to fill that gap. In a process Kamara describes as "speed-dating," he got to know all of Norwich's squad, starting with team captain and fellow striker Grant Holt. Then Sebastian Bassong and Alex Tettey. Then Anthony Piklington. One by one, his new teammates took Kamara under their wing, made him feel welcome, gave him a sense of home in a place far from it.
With his residence located blocks from Norwich's home ground Carrow Road, Kamara walked to and from home games, with fans chanting encouragement, asking for pictures, and begging him to stay in England beyond the terms of his loan. It didn't seem to matter that he would, once again, be playing as a target forward.
"For me, every day was a happy day. They could have put me at right back and I probably would have played it," Kamara says. "I was like a kid in a candy store, y'know? Every day I woke up and I was so excited just to go to training, and when it came to the weekend I just wanted to be involved."
Bock, Vermes, Heineman, and much of the SKC fanbase watched from half a world away, hanging on Kamara's every movement. First he made the match day squad after just a week of training. Soon, he got time off the bench, adding energy and unpredictability to games Norwich needed to squeeze points from in their relegation scrap. At the end of February, the crucial moment came: a goal of his own.
In the 84th minute, down 1-0 at home against a strong Everton side, Kamara rose to meet a corner, attacking the ball ahead of the 6-4 Marouane Fellaini with strength and conviction The ball hit the back of the net. Bedlam at Carrow Road. Kamara kissed the ground. 10 minutes later, he was involved in the winner scored by Holt. Three crucial points in the bag, giving Norwich new hope of EPL survival.
Afterward, he celebrated at the Pizza Hut near his home.
"After being there, I compare [Norwich] so much to Kansas City." Kamara says. "The people show so much respect and love for their team. It's a town team and they love it. It's a great place to play."
But as much as Norwich was starting to feel like home, Kamara's roots remained far away. In order to communicate with Bock in Kansas City, Kamara used video chat. In order to video chat, he needed to head to a pub with Wi-Fi. In order to keep his table there, he needed to buy a bag of chips, or some food that justified his place since he does not drink.
Then there was Norwich's increasingly precarious status in the top flight. In order for the club to pick up their option to buy Kamara outright, they needed to assure their place in the Premier League. In order to do that, they needed a win against Aston Villa at home in the final game of Kamara's loan.
"It was stressful. I could hear it from him," Bock says. "I hated knowing that he had all that pressure going into that last game. It was make or break in some ways."
Bock had already begun entertaining thoughts of moving to England, but put them on hold while watching the game. With Kamara entering as a late substitute, the Canaries lost 2-1. Without the financial security needed to sign him, Norwich ended Kamara's EPL adventure. It seemed everyone was shocked, except Kamara.
"I wasn't surprised at all -- It's business," he says. "Even though I was involved in goals, I didn't score enough to force them to buy me. As it was, it was a win-win, I got to go to the Premier League and got to come back home."
His first call after his release was to Vermes, who, true to his word, welcomed him back with open arms.
"I really thought it was a done deal that they were going to pick him up. When I found out they weren't, I was very excited," Vermes says. "He had a great attitude about it. He was like 'Look, I'm coming home. How bad can it be?'"
In a recent training session, the Sporting Kansas City players lined up for a shooting drill. Standing in three lines, they maneuvered the ball in distinct patterns before it arrived at the feet of forward C.J. Sapong. Sapong took a step toward the ball, intending to strike it on goal with full force. Instead, his cleats caught the turf, still moist from rain the night before. Sapong slid onto his backside as the ball rolled past.
Kamara laughed, sprinting to the spot of Sapong's fall.
"Safe!" he belted out, making the waving, crossed-arms baseball umpire signal. Sapong laughed, playfully pushed Kamara away, and returned to the back of his line in the drill. He buried the next opportunity in the back of the net.
"I don't want to say he's more serious, I just think he has a bigger appreciation for the moment since he came back," Vermes says. "It doesn't matter if he's a sub in the last few minutes of a game or if he's starting, he's going after it. It's in training as well, and around the training ground, the locker room. You can see, he's got a focus about him. It's not that he didn't have it before, it's just that it's different now."
It didn't take long for Kamara to get back up to speed with his old new team. After entering a few matches as a substitute, he got his first goal back against Eastern Conference rival Houston Dynamo at Sporting Park. Then another in the U.S. Open Cup against Des Moines Menace. Then another at FC Dallas a month later. Seven days after that, nearly two months after returning from Norwich, Kamara made his biggest comeback statement with an outstanding strike against the Columbus Crew.
With his signature aerial touch, Kamara gently brought down a cross-field pass from Soony Saad in the box, got his angles right, and powered an unstoppable laser past Gruenebaum. In celebration, he ran past the fans, showing them heart-shaped hands. Rounding the corner, he ran straight to Heinemann, sitting fieldside, who smiled, hollered, and gave Kamara a bear hug.
"Home is home," he says. "No matter where it is, it still tickles you a little bit in your heart. It brings the joy out of you."
The question is: where will home be next? Heading into this weekend, Kamara has four goals in just seven appearances. Both Higgins and Heineman estimate that at least 20 clubs have inquired about him, including some in the Premier League. The transfer window is open for another month.
"Here we go," Bock wonders. "Is it going to happen all over again?"