Kei Kamara's trade from Columbus Crew SC not just down to Higuain spat
Columbus Crew SC has said goodbye to their all-too-candid Kamara.
The Crew shipped star forward Kei Kamara to the New England Revolution for a passel of assets, but no players. The haul includes Targeted Allocation Money, General Allocation Money, the Rev's highest first-round draft pick in 2017, their highest second-round draft pick in 2018, an international roster spot for the 2016 season, and a percentage of any future transfer fee should Kamara be moved outside of Major League Soccer. A source confirmed to ESPN FC that the total allocation haul was $500,000, a number first reported by The Columbus Dispatch.
The catalyst for all this appears to be the spat that Kamara had with Crew playmaker Federico Higuain over who should take a penalty kick in the 4-4 draw between the Crew and the Montreal Impact last Saturday. The penalty was converted to put the Crew up 4-1, at which point the team disintegrated. Kamara put the blame for the meltdown on "no team play" and singled out Higuain. After manager Gregg Berhalter suspended Kamara for this weekend's game against Colorado, Kamara didn't back down.
But Columbus owner Anthony Precourt tweeted that the move wasn't about the penalty incident alone.
Need this to be crystal clear, not about the PK or Pipa drama this week. One chapter in the book. #CrewSC- Anthony Precourt (@APrecourt) May 12, 2016
New England GM Mike Burns gave credence to those statements, telling ESPN FC that talks with Columbus about Kamara began last week, before the weekend's airing of dirty laundry. (Berhalter would say only, "We talked to a lot of different teams about a lot of different players.")
All of this amounts to a bizarre turn of events for a team that rode Kamara's goals to last year's MLS Cup final. But there is some historical precedent. As good as Kamara is with the media and fans, he has a reputation for being very difficult to manage, for rubbing teammates the wrong way. New England marks his fifth MLS team and sixth separate stint with an MLS club.
One could argue that forwards, by their very nature, are egotistical. They probably wouldn't excel in that position if they weren't. But Kamara apparently takes that description to the extreme. At which point, the decision to acquire him becomes a case of risk versus reward. At what point does the goal production he provides become outweighed by his unsettling presence in the locker room?
Berhalter evidently decided that time had come. Though he declined to get into many specifics about Kamara, he echoed Precourt's tweet that there was more to the decision that what happened last Saturday.
"We were focused on our culture, our playing style, and we didn't feel like those two things were aligned at the moment," he said. "And because of that, it was something where we were OK with moving on."
Had Kamara worn out his welcome?
"I wouldn't put it like that," Berhalter said. "You care for all the players, and you get involved with all the players and you want it to be a family and you want it to be a tight atmosphere, and a tight locker room. In this case we just didn't feel like the collective culture was aligned, and because of that we felt like we had a good alternative. We thought really hard about it. It wasn't an easy decision to make, but we decided to part ways."
So if it wasn't about last Saturday, what was it about then? It seems likely that a steady erosion in trust took place, with Kamara's preseason holdout for a better contract leaving some scars. Saturday only served to make it clearer that player and club needed to separate. When New England offered up the assets -- Berhalter indicated that there were three to five serious offers on the table -- the Crew found it impossible to say no.
"We didn't want to settle," Berhalter said. "Obviously, Kei is an exceptional talent and we wanted to be open to find the talent that we wanted. In MLS, when you trade for money, it basically opens up your whole world to a different pool of players. That's what we did. I'm not necessarily saying that we're going to get a striker, but we will look to improve the team. We have to evaluate what positions we can get better in."
Some will view the deal as a failing of Berhalter's leadership. But there are moments when it is better to cut your losses, especially if it means keeping the rest of the team on board. And with the assets the Crew obtained, they're well positioned to restock when the summer transfer window opens on July 4. Might it be too late by then? Not in an Eastern Conference rife with below-average teams.
The Revs are betting that Kamara's positives will vastly outweigh any negatives. Burns stressed that New England took Kamara's off-field reputation into account. He admitted there are some unknowns, but said the deal "was too good of an opportunity to pass up."
"You don't really know for sure until the guy gets in here and gets acclimated," he said about how Kamara will fit into the locker room. "That's the truth. We did homework on it, but you don't really know for sure on any player. That [aspect] was considered, and sometimes a change and a new environment is good for a player. We're hopeful, we're optimistic."
The eye test says New England is more than optimistic. Kamara is being asked to right a season that looks in danger of going sideways. And New England doesn't need to change things up too much stylistically. The crosses from left back Chris Tierney should be precisely the kind of service upon which Kamara feasts. The Revs are third in the league in chances created at 10.82 per game, but only 15th in the league in goals scored with 1.18 goals per game. Kamara should fix that latter number in a hurry.
"We didn't make this trade thinking we would have to change a whole lot about how we play and our style of play," Burns said. "We think Kamara is actually going to complement the way we play, more so than us having to change the way we play."
What the Revs will do with their plethora of forwards is another question. Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, Femi Hollinger-Janzen and Juan Agudelo were all vying for minutes in Jay Heaps' 4-2-3-1 formation. Kamara's arrival means the above-mentioned quartet will need to find new positions (Bunbury and Agudelo have seen time out wide), or head elsewhere, but for now it's a nice problem to have.
"I firmly believe you can never have too many good forwards," Burns said. "You're going to have to deal at times with suspensions, injuries, so we were looking for another piece, another forward."
The questions surrounding Columbus, especially from a tactical sense, are more complicated. The Crew has depended on Kamara's ability to get on the end of crosses since he arrived. That responsibility now looks to lie with the fatefully named Ola Kamara and veteran Conor Casey. There's also the possibility of Higuain playing as a false nine, or moving Justin Meram centrally, but both options seem to afford less of the pace and power needed to feast on the service from out wide.
"We're going to find out what our system is about," Berhalter said. "I'm excited about it. I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for us."
And the opportunity for plenty of second-guessing as well.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.