The month is July. After his team stumbled through a rough patch in May and early June, Kei Kamara helped it find its form and start to look like a true competitor. They go into the All-Star break with eight wins, and Kamara earns an MLS All-Star nod. Controversy erupts, however, when league commissioner Don Garber takes it upon himself to name two big-name stars – recently arrived from massive clubs in Europe – to the All-Star roster before they’ve played a minute in MLS league play.
You didn’t miss an announcement that Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets were named to the All-Star team. This happened in 2015 when Kamara got his first All-Star nod en route to tying for the league’s Golden Boot as top goalscorer. That season, Don Garber took it upon himself to bring Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard to the All-Star roster, despite not making it to the league until early July.
Kei Kamara, then at his second spell with the Columbus Crew, was the league’s leading goalscorer and, nine years into his time in MLS, earned his first All-Star selection. This time, the All-Star nod was bestowed upon him by Don Garber as a Commissioner’s Pick in recognition of the fact that he has firmly installed himself as one of the top goalscorers in league history, whose tally of 144 has him a single goal behind Landon Donovan’s haul for second on the all-time list.
It is also a recognition of the fact that Kamara’s illustrious career in the league is in its twilight – a somewhat ignominious phrase to describe a player who is, ultimately, of an age with this writer – but that no doubt figured into Garber’s decision to bring him into the second All-Star game of his career.
Kamara’s remarkable career has spanned what are three decisively distinct eras in MLS. Kamara entered the league 2006 MLS SuperDraft, his first All-Star selection in 2015 and his second this year – shows just how much the league, of which Kamara has been such an integral part, has changed.
In Kamara’s first season, the league had 12 teams, finally growing after expansion had contracted the league just a few years earlier. The salary cap was just over $1.9 million, and the league lacked Allocation Money, Designated Players, and any other devices that made the “salary budget” an act of accounting fiction.
Teams could spend up to $1.9 million and do it how they liked. Chivas USA – then one of the leagues newer expansion teams – elected to spend $1.36m of it on Francisco Palencia, the ex-Cruz Azul, Espanyol, and Guadalajara player. Freddy Adu was still in the league and was D.C. United’s highest-paid player at $550,000 per year. Tony Sanneh was the best-compensated player on the Fire’s roster, at $365,000 (as of the MLS Players Association’s most recent salary release, ten players on the Fire’s roster make more than that sum).
The New York Red Bulls – who had just been renamed from the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (nothing like having a slash in your name to make a definitive statement) – still played in Giants Stadium, capacity 80,000. Two teams played at college venues, while two others (including the aforementioned Chivas USA) shared the then-Home Depot Center, now Dignity Health Sports Park.
The league only had four purpose-built stadia to its name, including the Fire’s, playing in the newly-minted Toyota Park, which opened in the middle of the 2006 season (the team would play its first nine games on the road before opening their new home).
The league minimum salary in Kamara’s first season was $11,700, and 94 of the 312 players in the league – just shy of one out of three – earned that amount. Inflation has since eroded the buying power of that sum – it’s $17,700 in today’s money – but that’s still not an easy amount to live off of, particularly for a pro athlete, whose careers are often better measured in months, not years. The league wasn’t far removed from stories of players bunking up two (or more) to a room and relying upon someone’s aunt that happened to live in the area to drop off groceries to help players make ends meet.
A year later, the league changed its roster rules to allow for the entrance of David Beckham – if not the best footballer in history, certainly one of the most famous (being married to a Spice Girl, at the time, carried a certain caché, and regardless, it’s debatable whether his best skill was in his best foot or his marketing ability). Beckham eclipsed Palencia – who himself had eclipsed previous stars, like the Fire’s Hristo Stoichkov – as the league’s highest-paid player in its history.
It would be easy to say everything changed, but it didn’t. Many players earned less that year than they would if managing a gas station (a full-time employee at the federal minimum wage would have earned $10,700 that year), yet most of the players showed up match after match with a smile. Still, Kamara played on – mostly in MLS. Typically, this is when the article would say something about him quickly becoming established as one of the league’s stars, but he didn’t.
He played 19 matches that first season, scoring three goals. By that point in his 2023 season for the Fire, he’d scored five as a 38-year-old player. In fact, Kamara’s first season with double-digit goals in the league didn’t happen until 2010, when he scored ten and notched six assists.
Yet his 2015 campaign seemed different. The league had again expanded, with Orlando City and New York City FC entering the league (though the aforementioned Chivas USA folded, leaving Nelson Rodríguez looking for a new gig, which he’d eventually find with the Fire). The league played the season with 20 teams, a record at that point.
And Kei scored. And scored again. In fact, he entered the MLS All-Star game as the league’s leading scorer – but not one of the starting XI for the team that would face the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, saying, “you’re either a U.S. national team player or you’re a DP (Designated Player)… I’m neither one of those.” He would finish tied with Sebastian Giovanco for the Golden Boot with 22 goals, though he would add four more in the playoffs.
His All-Star nod and goal tally would help him earn that DP spot that could have sent him to the XI. He signed a new contract with Columbus that would put him in the same category of player that was created to facilitate Beckham’s entry into the league.
The year he earned the MLS All-Star selection, the league minimum was $50,000 ($64,000 today) – not a princely sum by any stretch, but certainly enough to live off of comfortably, even after accounting for agent’s fees.
As Kamara prepares for his second All-Star appearance, the league has changed again – the league consists of 29 teams, most of whom play in stadia purpose-built for soccer to the specifications of their teams. The remainder play in venues shared with NFL (or in the case of New York City FC, MLB) teams, with the luxury suites, large locker rooms, and media centers those venues provide. The Fire stand alone with Seattle – averaging around 32,000 this year – as teams that play in venues that aren’t either soccer-specific stadiums or shared with majority or minority owners of the club.
The league’s minimum salary is over $84,000, though the average, even for players outside of the DP category, is much higher. Players now earn a liveable wage, enough to save at least for the next step of their lives, essential in a field where “retirement” happens for most in their 20s.
On a rain-soaked Sunday in Ft. Lauderdale, a drivable distance (this author would not like to categorize it further) north of Miami, MLS welcomed its two newest DPs into the league – first, Sergio Busquets, and second, Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the greatest soccer player in history.
They both occupy a DP roster spot that did not exist when Kamara entered the league. The announcement was televised – well, streamed – and the league’s newest players – particularly Messi – had become it’s most famous long before the official announcement was made.
Yet unlike in 2015, Don Garber didn’t feel the need to add the newcomers – yet to play a minute in this league, competitive or otherwise – to the All-Star roster that Kamara was named to for the second time. A sign of progress, maybe, but certainly one of confidence, the same way Kamara has finished so many of his 144 goals in this league.