Kamara's remarkable journey from Sierra Leone to MLS
There were times, quite frankly, when Kei Kamara didn't know if he'd ever see another day. It's easy to see Kamara, a forward on the Houston Dynamo, on the field these days, smiling and carefree. Life wasn't always that way for one of the league's fastest-rising young stars.
Sierra Leone is still a dangerous place, a country made infamous in the movie "Blood Diamond" as a land where rebels rule the countryside and where the good guys and bad guys are frequently one and the same. Kamara, born and raised in the country, saw the nation's civil war unfold since the first shots were fired in 1991. The conflict would kill as many as an estimated two million, and lasted 11 bloody years.
During that time, Kamara would spend nights wondering if he would see the sun rise the next day. Born in the eastern part of the country in a town called Kenema, the war came swiftly to his town of 100,000. Though Kamara said his family wasn't wealthy or considered as such, it was well known that they had relatives in the United States. When the rebels moved into the area, the family kept a very low profile.
With no father in the picture, Kamara's mother moved to the United States before the war started when he was aged four. Sensing trouble, she wanted to get out of the country and establish herself in America so she could bring her family over. Months later, the war would fully break out and sweep into Kamara's hometown. He was now in the middle a bloodthirsty struggle, away from his mother, and living with his aunt and his siblings.
He remembers a time when he was walking down the road and looked into a rebel truck. At that time, the town had been ransacked and no one and nothing was safe. Inside the truck, which sped by, he noticed some of his things.
"I looked in and saw that there were my things there -- they were obviously my things -- things you could only get in America," said Kamara. "I realized then that they had taken my things. I got angry but there was nothing I could do."
Eventually, along with his aunt and the rest of his family, they would move to Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown. With hopes of finding peace and opportunity, they instead found more of the same. The violence in the war was escalating at this time and Kamara would hit the ground every time he heard gunfire. Eventually, he got so used to it that he could recognize the type of artillery being fired from the crackling sound of the guns.
"It came to the point where I got used to it -- I used to run and hide under the bed. After awhile, though, it became like music to my ears," Kamara said.
But still, he was a young boy and the death and bloodshed would take its toll on him.
"There were times that I didn't think about it, and there were times I remember crying," Kamara said. "I'd wonder out loud if I'd ever make it out alive."
For months at a time, the violence would be so bad that he wouldn't be able to attend school. He didn't have the typical childhood for a young boy. Eventually, the family was able to escape the war, moving to Gambia in 1999. In October 2000, he finally made the move to the United States. It had taken almost a decade, but he'd finally see his mother again.
He stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac in New York and instantly came face to face with the cold autumn winds of the Northeast. Eventually, he made his way to California, where he was reunited with his mother, who was working at a casino. Here, Kamara really began to play soccer seriously.
Though Sierra Leone is a soccer-crazy country, Kamara didn't know it well. His brothers were all prominent soccer players in the country, but the war limited their opportunities. In America, Kamara learned that he could earn a college scholarship if he excelled on the field. Kamara quickly got kicking.
The change of scenery -- far away from hearing the sounds of battle, hiding under his bed or watching his things being looted from his house -- freed Kamara. Now, he found expression and contentment in school and on the soccer field.
"I played, but not organized soccer [in Sierra Leone]. I was always one of the smaller players among my family -- my brothers were always really good and among the best," Kamara said. "I didn't really start playing until I got here, and I didn't get big until I got here. That's when I began eating hamburgers."
His hunger would also include goals, as the 6-foot-2 forward began to blossom. He would eventually latch on with the Manhattan Beach Hurricanes and begin to make a name for himself in California. Pretty soon, he started drawing college interest, eventually suiting up for Cal State-Dominguez Hills. During his senior season, he earned All-American status.
Then came MLS and a Generation adidas contract and now, he's approaching stardom in MLS. Kamara would be drafted in the first round of the MLS Super Draft in 2006 by the Columbus Crew by then Crew head coach Sigi Schmid. As a coach of Los Angeles several years before, Schmid had watched Kamara train in college when the Galaxy and the nearby college team would scrimmage or use the team's facilities. After two seasons and five goals scored, Kamara would be traded to San Jose where he would begin to see regular action in MLS. A trade in the middle of last season sent the forward to Houston where he has begun to flourish, netting nine goals in a variety of action.
"He has a great combination of strength and speed," said former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare. "He is also good technically and he is a good finisher whether it's in the air, running on to through balls, or by shooting."
Last year, Kamara was called up to the Sierra Leone national team, bringing him back to his homeland.
"I cried, I cried as I stood there, listening to the national anthem. I just cried -- no one else in my family has done that, represented Sierra Leone -- I just cried," Kamara said. "I am standing there, in the stadium, alongside these other players, hearing the anthem play and I have a flashback -- to my past and where I was years ago. It seems to me like I just left Sierra Leone yesterday. God has been so good to me.
"I just cried."
Quote of the Week
"In all fairness, before the second goal comes I thought we were OK, the momentum was on our side. But we don't get anything out of that, and we made a mistake on the second goal and after that it was all downhill."
-- Chivas USA coach Preki following the team's 4-0 loss to Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night.
Stat of the Week
This past week, New York Red Bulls defender Kevin Goldthwaite underwent successful hernia surgery and is expected to miss no more than three weeks of the season. He's certainly not the first one on the team to have done so over the past few years. The always quirky and yet delightfully intelligent Dan Ryazansky, the operator of MetroFanatic.com, has calculated that 12 members of the franchise have had the surgery since 2003.
• The Kansas City Wizards last scored a goal in MLS play on July 25 against Los Angeles.
• Yamith Cuesta, on loan from Colombia's Expreso Rojo, made his debut for Chivas USA on Saturday. Cuesta played a full 90 minutes in central defense for the red and white.
• With a 1-0 win over Columbus, the Red Bulls won consecutive games for the first time since the 2008 playoffs.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com