Kei Kamara quietly walks into the back of a small movie theater in Waukegan, Illinois. There is not a huge crowd, but they are energized as the then-38-year-old striker entered the cinema. Following a screening of a short film about his journey from war-torn Sierra Leone to MLS, he fielded questions from young Fire fans about his incredible story and exceptional career in America.
A little over two months later, on a baseball field in Queens, New York, Kamara’s time with the Fire came to an end. It wasn’t quite the fairytale ending he had hoped for, as his team were eliminated from playoff contention on Decision Day by a single point, but it was a bittersweet moment.
Kamara’s arrival in the Windy City was a bit of a surprise, as it came just a few days before the start of the 2023 season. He had just completed a memorable comeback season in Montréal but wanted a trade and wound up playing for his old club teammate, Ezra Hendrickson. By June, he led the team with five goals in MLS, earning an All-Star spot in the process.
The second half of the season didn’t go as planned, but Kamara’s spell with the Fire certainly left a mark both personally and for his teammates. At every opportunity, he made an effort to connect with fans, particularly the youth, and even volunteered as an academy coach at points during season, working with the kids of the future. Even at 39, he provided a great example for those around him and made no excuses for himself.
“I feel like I start taking days off, that’s the end of my career,” Kamara told MIR97 Media postgame in New York. “The fact that I still have the energy to be there, to push the guys around me, when they see me, being the vet, the oldest guy on the team, and if they see me there every day, they have to check themselves and what they are doing.”
The goal that best embodied Kamara’s year with the Fire came just a few weeks in when the team traveled to South Florida to face off against Inter Miami. The match was knotted at two apiece after the Fire had blown a two-goal lead, and Kamara had come off the bench. Homegrown midfielder Javi Casas worked hard to win the ball in midfielder, combined with fellow teenager Brian Gutiérrez, who set up Kamara for a stoppage-time game-winner.
Working with the young players was something in particular that stood out. At the time of that goal, the combined ages of Casas and Gutiérrez were still younger than Kamara. Nonetheless, the veteran made it his goal to make as much of an impact on the young players as possible, and that was showcased in the on-field connection he had with Gutiérrez in particular. When reflecting on his time with the Fire, he singled out his time working with youngsters such as those two and 20-year-old forward Missael Rodríguez as one of his most important contributions.
“I’ve enjoyed myself and representing this club,” Kamara said. “The things that we achieved this year playing with some of these younger players, Javi, Guti, Missa, and all these guys around here, it’s been amazing for me and something I’m going to hold dearly to my heart.”
But, even as he turns 40 next year, Kamara says he isn’t done yet and still has gas in the tank. With his one-year deal up in Chicago, it will soon be time to find a new club in free agency, but that will be one elsewhere in Major League Soccer. It remains to be seen if that means a return to Sporting Kansas City to be closer to family, a homecoming to Los Angeles just down the block from his alma mater, Cal State Dominguez Hills, or somewhere else, but what is known is he will certainly have one last dance.
“I’m coming back next year. That’s what it is,” Kamara said. “Definitely, I enjoy scoring goals all the time, but I think if you guys have seen me around, the thing that means so much to me right now is what impact I give to the guys around me, how I push, whether it’s the next striker, whether it’s the younger guys, to challenge them and what’s going to push me to say, it’s not done yet.”
From guiding the youth at the club and academy to connecting with fans and teammates, Kamara brought something special in his year with the Fire. His important goals in the Spring and early Summer were important, but in such a short period of time, he became a favorite in Chicago. The future seems bright for the Fire organization, and while it won’t feature Kamara, his personality, heart, and goals won’t quickly be forgotten.