The Chicago Fire’s home locker room at Soldier Field can either be a fun place to be or a very depressing one. It all depends on the outcome of the match prior, and fortunately, it was quite pleasant this past Saturday. Kei Kamara wasn’t the first player to emerge to speak with the media following the Fire’s 2-1 win over Minnesota United, but when he finally did, he wasn’t alone and was joined by one of his three young children, dripped out in a mini Kamara jersey.
A brace from the 38-year-old MLS legend propelled the Fire to their second win of the season this week, and while his addition to the team just a week before the Fire’s opening match was a welcome surprise, and the story of his time so far in Chicago has been fascinating.
For years, Kamara bounced around MLS (to 10 different teams, in fact), and most of the time he was “the guy” up top. You don’t get to third place in the MLS all-time scoring charts for nothing. Even in his late thirties, Kamara has played a prominent role for his teams, and was a valuable piece for CF Montréal last season. In Chicago, though, he’s taken on what he sees as a different role and doesn’t even really view the “competition” with Kacper Przybyłko, Georgios Koutsias, and Missael Rodríguez as something that concerns him.
“It’s not a competition,” Kamara told us post-game this weekend. “I’m here to help. So when the time comes for me to play, I’m gonna be ready. Definitely, It was great to have the first start here at home and our first win. It was really good. You know, for me, really, it’s helping. I know I’m not gonna come in here and be the number one player all the time. But you know, when the time comes, and the coach says you’re playing today, I’m gonna be ready for it, whether it’s here at home or on the road.”
— Alex Calabrese (@amcalabrese12) April 9, 2023
It would be easy for a player with Kamara’s résumé to demand a regular starting role. However, his team-first mentality – and promise that he’s just happy to do whatever will help the group – just go to show how much of a positive influence he’s been with the young Chicago Fire team.
“What I like about the way I played, I helped the team,” he said. “Really, it’s an important game, when the coach told me that I was going to be playing up top, I knew the backline, they’re strong, and I knew that I have to be a body to be an outlet for the guy. So when the ball comes forward, I have to hold it, lay it off. And it’ll just be a problem for as much as I can do during the game, because I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to go the whole game. So just do as much as I could do.”
Last season, one thing that could have been argued there were not enough leaders; experienced players for the group to look up to, and to play a big role in the locker room. There was Jonathan Bornstein, who was a great asset in both areas, as well as captain Rafa Czichos and forward Kacper Przybyłko. However, Kamara has come in and almost instantly integrated himself with the group in Chicago.
Despite being literally twice his age, Kamara has already formed a strong relationship with homegrown Brian Gutiérrez both on and off the pitch. Guti created the game-winning assist down in Miami for the Fire’s first victory of the season, and again combined with Kamara for chances in both of the two recent home matches at Soldier Field. In the locker room after the Minnesota match Saturday, the two exchanged some laughs, just as the two exchanged passes on numerous occasions earlier in the night.
“They call him ‘Grandpa’!” Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson told the press after the match. “He’s always there, he’s always putting his arms around the younger guys. He’s always trying to help them out, giving them advice. On the pitch, you can see him getting the guys to stay focused and stuff like that. So, he’s been a great addition to this team, beyond just his goalscoring, what he does in the locker room and on the pitch, as far as leading the team, has been very tremendous for us so far.”
On an individual note, Kamara has been making all sorts of history this season. Earlier, he became the first player to score for ten MLS teams (thus, the first to reach double-digits, and that same goal against Miami was weirdly the first stoppage-time winner of his career. His brace at Soldier Field helps him continue to rise of the all-time scoring charts; he’s now above legends like Jaime Moreno and Jeff Cunningham and is closing in on arguably the league’s greatest-ever player, Landon Donovan. Beyond those three, though, he did have some words to say about an old teammate.
“It’s great to have those achievements and Jaime [Moreno], or you know Jeff Cunningham and all those guys that have been there,” Kamara says. “Chris Wondolowski, I’ve always said, you know, he’s a player that played Division II soccer in America and me and him were the only guys that played Division II soccer. So for us to be up on a list like that, it’s really good. And it’s, it’s a big, big achievement. So you know, I enjoy it.”
Over the years, Fire fans grew accustomed to watching Kamara score against them. In fact, he’s scored more goals against the Fire than any other player, scoring thirteen times. Now, he’s still putting goals in the back of the net, but this time wearing the Fire jersey, a sight that we can hopefully get used to. Things are looking up for the Men in Red right now, and it’s becoming quite clear that the late trade for MLS’ greatest journeyman was exactly what the Chicago Fire needed.