For Columbus Crew SC's explosive attacking duo Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay, places in the MLS All-Star Game are causes for celebration.
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Kei Kamara’s history with MLS All-Star Game selectors has been patchy despite being one of three Columbus Crew SC players on the 2015 roster. Now that the first-time All-Star is here, he’s prepared to take it all in.
“I’m just here enjoying my moment, really,” he said with a smile on his face before training on Tuesday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “It’s great for me to be selected, and I’m honored to be here, but it’s an All-Star Game. It’s not the World Cup, so I’m here to enjoy it.”
Kamara’s words and actions personify the confidence lying inside the striker. He doesn’t mince words, and he’s been known to celebrate his goals with a flamboyant variety of commemorations.
When he wasn’t selected in 2010 and he scored against Manchester United in a friendly, Kamara took off his jersey to reveal “KCW [Kansas City Wizards] All-Star” printed in black on a white undershirt. His place on the squad was in some question against despite being the league's leading scorer when he wasn’t initially selected by the fans or commissioner Don Garber, who opted for Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard (since withdrawn with injuries) instead.
“I wanted to be a part of it and I still want to be a part of it,” he told reporters in mid-July after scoring against the Chicago Fire in a 1-0 win. “But it’s simple as it goes: You’re either a U.S. national team player or you’re a DP to be on there. I’m neither one of those. If I get called up, I’ll be lucky.”
The man who assisted his goal against Chicago and many of his MLS-best 15 strikes, Ethan Finlay, only made it when a handful of others dropped out on Tuesday. Finlay comprises the other half of Crew SC’s deadly combination with Kamara, dropping 12 assists to lead the league in that category.
“We’re good players, and we deserve to be here,” Kamara said. “Leading the league in goals, leading the league in assists—it should have been a no-brainer.”
MLS also added Waylon Francis to the squad on Tuesday, completing the All-Star trio. Finlay said their selections reflect well on the entire Columbus organization and the culture manager Gregg Berhalter has instilled in his second full season in charge.
“To have three guys represented on this team is pretty spectacular,” Finlay said. “It’s a testament to what Coach Berhalter is doing in Columbus, and our ownership. They’re dedicated to winning … and this is just one good recognition for it.”
Finlay and Kamara’s recent awakening has spurred the team as a whole to a sudden climb up the table.
After dropping as far as ninth in the Eastern Conference after the first month, Columbus has won four of its last six and sits second.
Kamara has scored in each of the last three, with Finlay adding a goal or assist in each match as well.
With Finlay’s service, Kamara’s finishing ability and Federico Higuaín’s vision for the killer pass from a deeper position, Crew SC has long had the tools to make its mark on MLS. However, Finlay said his spark came from something more difficult to measure.
“It started with a little bit of confidence, and that gets it rolling. From there, it’s just never being satisfied,” he said. “[Berhalter] saw my ability to be able to beat guys and whip balls in and get in behind defenses, and Kei himself draws a double-team every game now. That’s opening more and more space for me.”
Making Finlay’s influence on his team’s success even more impressive is the broken toe he’s been playing with since late May. Off the field, he wore a supportive boot for a month, and he continues to play with a molded support during games. A recent X-ray showed that the bone is healing, he said, albeit slower than it would if he were to stay off it completely. Still, he plays on.
“When I decided that I think I can tolerate this pain, I didn’t really think about it by the time the game came,” Finlay said.
After the All-Star Game, shoring up the defensive end will be crucial for Columbus to maintain its standing. Crew SC has conceded 33, including three in an epic second-half collapse against Toronto FC on Saturday.
After going up 3-0 in the first 47 minutes, Columbus gave up three in the last 40 to finish with a draw. Only the New England Revolution have conceded more games among teams currently in playoff positions, with 35.
“Week by week, I feel like I’m getting stronger and stronger, and I feel like week by week, our team is getting stronger,” Finlay said. “We’re putting up numbers offensively, and we shore it up in the back a little bit, from back to front, we’ll be just fine.”
As for the game on Wednesday against Tottenham Hotspur, Kamara said he’s happy to have his main assist man alongside him to potentially replicate their league form in MLS’s showcase match.
“That means I have people to provide me balls, hopefully, to score a goal,” Kamara said.
Should he latch onto a ball from Finlay against Spurs, could that lead to another classic Kamara celebration?
“Definitely,” he said.