This isn’t the first time New England, oft-criticized during its history for lack of ambition and financial commitment, has rolled the dice since head coach Jay Heaps took over prior to the 2012 season.
But by sending a boatload of allocation monies and draft picks to Columbus in exchange for highly productive, high-maintenance, Kei Kamara, the organization has taken on a huge risk for the first time since it hired former Italian international Walter Zenga as head coach in 1998.
That move blew up spectacularly when he was fired late in the 1999 season. The Kamara case could go either way. He comes to a team that has won just one game of 10 while tying seven and is scratching and clawing for a spot in the playoff tier.
“He gives us a true number nine,” Heaps has said of Kamara. “We have pieces that work off of that really well, but it also gives us a lot of depth. It gives us a lot of attacking options to vary different things in the final third.
“I think you’ll see a couple different starting points and different players in different positions just to kind of strengthen what we have.”
Heaps also said he’s not all that interested in the back story regarding Kamara and Crew SC. It’s not the first time Kamara has left a team under a cloud -- the Revs are his sixth MLS employer since he was drafted by the Crew out of Cal State Dominguez Hills in 2006 -- and both teams have admitted trade talks began long before the PK squabble last weekend in a 4-4 tie with Montreal.
“I don’t want to speculate, because I don’t know the whole story,” said Heaps of Kamara's abrupt and ugly departure from Columbus after he and Federico Higuain feuded over the taking of a penalty kick. “There’s always a big story. Just speaking from experience and having situations that arise within the locker room, no one wants to be dissected in the public eye. Even with things we’ve had to deal within the players and different things, handling it in house is always the best.
“With that said, I think there’s always more than one side to each story. Until I know the full story, I don’t really want to comment on that story. I’ll comment on our side.”
Suffice to say this is new territory for New England.
Charlie Davies’ comeback from horrific injuries suffered in a car crash had stalled with Danish club Randers, and after he played a few games with the Revs on loan at the tail end of the 2013 season, New England acquired his rights. On the roster he joined Lee Nguyen, who had returned from playing in Europe and Vietnam only to be waived by Vancouver on the eve of the 2013 season.
In both cases, Heaps smelled opportunity and pounced. The case of Kamara, albeit in far more tumultuous circumstances, isn’t all that different. Heaps has taken on a player other teams didn’t want.
Many teams, including the Fire, wanted Jermaine Jones but he wound up with the Revs and sparked a remarkable run that ended with an overtime loss to the Galaxy in the 2014 MLS Cup final.
When he came aboard after the World Cup, there were questions about his age and his ability to cope with the unique demands and stresses of MLS. He dispelled those fears as the Revs stormed their way to their fifth championship-game appearance, and he’s not missed a step this season as Colorado has risen to first place in the overall standings, as New England fans have ruefully noted.
Jones went to the Rapids in a trade after balking at a drastic pay cut -- from approximately $3 million to $600,000 -- proposed by New England. More than a few observers have speculated the Kamara deal is, to borrow a refereeing term, a makeup call for the loss of Jones and subsequent signing of Xavier Kouassi, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee playing for Swiss club FC Sion just days after signing a deal that would have brought him to MLS in July.
A source said Kouassi’s Designated Player contract is valued at about $850,000. He is not expected to play in 2016.
In March, Kamara signed a new contract that reportedly pays him about $1 million per year and represents a big bump from his 2015 salary of $536,666, which apparently wasn’t enough to keep him happy on a team that featured him as a target striker and went all the way to the MLS Cup final last year.
Kamara doesn’t address either of New England’s most pressing needs: it has lacked stability in central midfield and the back line. It is tied for the league lead in goals allowed per game at 1.8.
But he is an athletic, powerful, aggressive forward who last year scored 26 goals (regular-season and playoffs combined) and is, right now, the most prolific target man in MLS. He led the league last year in headed goals with nine; no one else had more than four. By bagging two goals against Montreal before Higuain dismissed his wish to round out a hat trick from the penalty spot, he upped his take this season to five goals in nine games.
“I can’t really say what led to the trade because there was a situation that I thought is what led to the trade,” Kamara said Friday after his first training session with the Revs. “It was clear to me that they said we didn’t trade you because of the incident that happened over the weekend. It’s a shock in sports.
“The kind of records that I put up for the club and going to the final and even starting this year. I’m on what is it? Five goals in how many games. I’m just looking forward to doing more and continuing to do more and continuing to really be back on top of that podium and try to win a championship.”
Heaps didn't say if Kamara will start against Chicago Saturday. (He is eligible to play because it was Crew SC, not the league, that disciplined him with a suspension.) The Revs play a different formation and style than does Crew SC, which funnels the ball through playmaker Higuain yet also relies on service and runs from wide areas. According to whoscored.com, Crew SC is second in crosses per game with 23 (Seattle is first with 25).
There is no clearcut No. 10 in the Revs’ lineup and aside from lefty Chris Tierney, they don’t have designated crossers, per se. But they are tied for fourth with 20 crosses per game and has perhaps the deepest and most varied array of attackers in MLS: in addition to Davies and Nguyen, Heaps can send out Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, Juan Agudelo, and Teal Bunbury in his attacking phalanx supported by Scott Caldwell and Gerson Koffie. Kamara and Bunbury were teammates in Kansas City.
“It’s good to be able to play different positions on the field,” Kamara said of the roles he's filled during a career that includes stints in England with Middlesbrough and Norwich. “Then, you’re kind of important to a team when you can do something like that. For me, four years in Kansas City, I played on the wide. Had a decent amount of goals.
“But playing up front, again, last season with the Crew, it was good. I was able to be successful at that. That’s good position because in a team like this, like I said, the offensive force that his team has, everybody can play everywhere. It kind of goes with the flow of the game.”
There are too many players on the roster to fill the attacking slots, yet such was the case when Heaps and general manager Mike Burns began discussing a deal for Kamara last month. Another trade/transfer window opens July 4 and if the Revs continue to flounder even if Kamara is scoring goals, more roster moves are likely.