The best pure striker in Major League Soccer last season was traded last week. Because he'd gotten into a feud with a teammate. Or perhaps because of other stuff. Either way, Kei Kamara was sent from the Columbus Crew to the New England Revolution on Thursday, for a boatload of loot that only exists in MLS – general allocation money, targeted allocation money, an international slot, some draft picks and future transfer earnings.
It was an only-in-MLS event, on a number of levels, a reminder that MLS teams still view players as expendable commodities in a system where players still have little say about where they play. Kamara had just signed a fat three-year, $1 million-a-season Designated Player contract in the offseason, which had resulted in protracted and sometimes publicly testy negotiations.
And yet ultimately that new contract or the Designated Player status —the contractual distinction given to players whose salaries exceed the regular structure — meant little job security even for a star like Kamara in a league that has yet to grant its players full free agency. So, he was shuttled away when the team saw him as expendable.
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And it caused one young fan to lose total control of his shit. And understandably so. In 2015, Kamara scored 22 goals, which tied him for the Golden Boot as the league's top scorer – although Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco actually won it on a tie-breaker. He was an All-Star, a Best XI selection and a finalist for the MVP award. He scored more goals than anybody in the playoffs as well, pushing the Crew all the way to the MLS Cup Final, where he got his team's only goal in the 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers. And, above all, he made the Crew's rugged counter-punching style work.
Then, he got traded to his fifth MLS team. Possibly, because he didn't get along with a teammate.
On May 7, Kamara was on the verge of a hat-trick against the Montreal Impact when the Crew was awarded a penalty. Federico Higuain insisted on taking it, denying Kamara the standard courtesy of going for his three-goal game, which would have been the first of his career. Afterwards, the Sierra Leonean put his teammate on blast to the press, calling him selfish.
Soon enough, he was gone. Even though he's 31 and in his prime and had five goals in nine games.
Even Kamara himself was taken by surprise. "I told everybody to stay calm," he said of the persistent rumors on Thursday's MLS trade deadline. "And then I told everybody to panic."
It should be noted that the Crew claim Kamara was already on the trading block before the incident, even though that makes no sense at all, since he'd only just signed his megadeal (by MLS standards).
Yet however strange it was, the entire affair is still revealing. Plainly, MLS clubs still hold the view that their players are disposable assets, and they hold the power over them to treat them as such. This is true even in the age of the mega-signings that slowly became routine after David Beckham's arrival in 2007 – when inking the likes of David Villa, Didier Drogba, and Steven Gerrard became a great deal easier, inciting Friday's rumor that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is next.
Kamara and Higuain are hardly the first teammates not to get along. Nor are they the only set of stars in the history of sets of stars to have grown resentful of one another. Kamara claimed Higuain, the team's playmaker, never set him up. You could imagine that Higuain, in turn, might very well begrudge Kamara the multiples of attention and recognition he's gotten. But in most every soccer league, they'd either be told to find a way to get along — soccer teams aren't generally a merry band of two dozen friends — or to keep their differences away from the cameras and microphones.
Not so in MLS.
Apparently identified as a problem case — again, in spite of that very big and very recent contract, which was an indication of how important Columbus had deemed him to be — Kamara became a toxic asset to be cleared from the books. Whether this really was caused by the Higuain incident or not is irrelevant here, because there was no good soccer-related reason to trade him. This speaks to a mindset from a time where MLSers were almost literally a dime a dozen.
The league has come a long way since the time, less than a decade ago, when it paid some of its players just $12,900 for an entire season as full-time contracted players. The minimum is $60,000 now. But on the MLS Players Union's most recent salaries release back in September, nine of the Crew's 29 listed players were at that threshold. (Kamara, for what it's worth, had a base salary of $400,000 then. Higuain's was $1.175 million.)
The Kamara saga suggests that all but the very biggest stars are still just tradable goods to MLS. Certainly, all pro athletes in every sport are interchangeable and eminently replaceable properties to their employers. But the value of retaining them is at least recognized, and the free agency every other American sports league has given players — albeit reluctantly — at least gives players somewhat of a say about their careers. Sure, Kamara got his big contract, but he could only have negotiated with Columbus.
The Crew then dumping their star as quickly and unceremoniously as they did so soon after giving him a huge contract may reflect a lingering league-wide philosophy that for years balked at keeping players if they so much as asked for a modest raise.
It might well be that this thriftiness kept MLS afloat during a lot of difficult years. But it's startling to see last year's finalists taking a hacksaw to their (admittedly slumping) team at the first sign of trouble. That doesn't look like good management. And over the long term, this policy probably isn't financially sound either.