LAFC’s Kei Kamara: Grand Old Man of the American Game

Kei Kamara (39) is the oldest active player in MLS -- and he’s hunting a second U.S. Open Cup trophy in a pro career defined by goals and spanning nearly two decades.
By: Jonah Fontela
Kei Kamara with a player on his back and other players in background all wearing Sporting Kansas City Open Cup shirts

“It’s OK, you can call me old. I won’t get mad,” Kei Kamara chuckled, with the kind of effortless charm that’s made him beloved at the 12 Major League Soccer clubs he’s called home since 2006.

He’s now in Los Angeles, playing out his 18th MLS season with powerhouse LAFC at the ripe old age of 39. Born on September 1st, 1984, he’s eight days older than Atlanta United’s veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and thus the oldest active player in the U.S. top flight.

Kamara won’t always be a starter for LAFC, with Denis Bouanga among one of the best strikers in the league and World Cup winner Olivier Giroud signed and set to join the club soon. But he was in the Starting XI out on the road in the club’s first Open Cup contest this year – a tricky Round of 32 test against Las Vegas Lights of the Division II USL Championship.

And he did what he always seems to do: find the net and make life hell for opposing defenders. His opener, early in the second half, set the 2022 MLS champions, hunting a first-ever Open Cup crown, on their way to a 3-1 win. “I’m able to control myself emotionally and that matters in games like this,” he said of his dual role as player and calming veteran presence. “I have to be stable out there for the younger guys.”

The Magic (and the Weirdness) of the Cup

"Cup games can be weird, and it’s not easy when you’re a team like LAFC who everyone is gunning for,” Kamara told of the game, in doubt until the bitter end, and producing such heat that coach Steve Cherundolo, normally the coolest of customers, was shown a red card for dissent.

Kamara isn’t just speaking in platitudes when he talks of the Open Cup. He’s walked the walk, winning the tournament in 2012 with Sporting Kansas City. Aside from the odd conference title, it’s the only trophy the 2015 MLS All-Star has lifted in his near two decades as one of the most consistent scorers on the American soccer scene.

Kamara grabbing a shirt while fighting for the ball
Kamara grabbing a shirt while fighting for the ball
Kamara during his loan stint in the English Premier League with Norwich City

“The Open Cup was the first big trophy I won as a pro,” he said, looking back 12 years through the sands of time, to when his 84th minute penalty in the Final helped catapult SKC to an eventual win over the Seattle Sounders via a shootout (he scored in that too, charged with taking the first of the five kicks). “We were rewriting history for SKC [rebranded from the Wizards – and the Wiz before that – in 2010] and that Open Cup win really helped fuel everything the club went on to win after [MLS Cup in 2013 and two more Open Cups in 2015 and 2017].”

The connection from all those years ago to the here and now was not lost on Kamara in the locker room at Cashman Field in Vegas ahead of LAFC’s Round of 32 opener. “I looked around and told the guys, this is a sign, being here in Las Vegas and starting our Cup run – because this is where we came to celebrate our Open Cup title when we won in 2012.”

Many of the players around him, pulling up their socks and getting their heads right, were half Kamara’s age. Like Erik Dueñas, the 19-year-old midfielder, and defender Omar Campos (21). And, of course, 22-year-old Christian Olivera, who’d go on to score a 70th-minute winner and an insurance goal in stoppage time.

Kamara and two teammates celebrating with fans cheering in background
Kamara and two teammates celebrating with fans cheering in background
Kamara celebrates his late goal in the 2012 Open Cup Final in KC

It’s not something that concerns Kamara. This is a man who exudes youthful spirit in spite of his age – and knows what he’s capable of out on a soccer field. “I’ve always just been focussed on playing, on doing what I can do to get goals, not checking on how old I am,” said Kamara, one of just 11 players to have amassed 100 or more goals in MLS history.

Kamara currently sits third in the league’s all-time scorers list, behind only Chris Wondolowski and Landon Donovan. “I cherish the fact that I’m still playing at a high level at 39 – using my smarts in many situations, in the league and in the Open Cup, and still being able to get the odd goal.”

From Civil War to MLS’ Bright Lights

That’s an understatement. Full stop. Kei Kamara’s whole identity is bound up in his ability to get goals. He’s a poacher, an opportunist. Call him whatever you want, but it’s the same today as it was when he was a fresh-faced league rookie in 2006, or out on loan in the Premier League with Norwich City in 2013.

When Kamara comes to town (and he’s come to a dozen different towns in two countries in MLS) you know what you're likely to get. Goals, usually in the double digits per season.

Kamara fights for the ball with another player reaching his hand across his body
Kamara fights for the ball with another player reaching his hand across his body
Kamara was named an MLS All-Star in 2015 – a goal-littered season with Columbus Crew

The game he loves, and those goals that became his stock-in-trade, connect Kamara – a smiling, bombastic image of fun and friendliness in his adult life – to horrific days as a child in Sierra Leone, where he came of age during a brutal 11-year Civil War. He witnessed executions in his home city of Kenema, infiltrated early by rebels.

Football was the refuge. When the shooting stopped, Kamara and his friends cleared a space in the streets and started to play. “We just kicked an old ball around,” said the player, who went on represent Sierra Leone’s national team 40 times. “There was no league. No goals. It wasn’t organized. The field was wherever you made it. It was just fun, and we played until the sun went down or the shooting started.”

Sporting Kansas City players lifting the Open Cup trophy and cheering with confetti in background
Sporting Kansas City players lifting the Open Cup trophy and cheering with confetti in background
Kamara with the Open Cup trophy (far left, with the Sierra Leone flag around his neck)

His arrival in the United States, granted asylum at the age of 16, was the culmination of a harrowing journey. He hid in the jungle and spent two years in a refugee camp in the Gambia before he was reunited with his mother in LA.

There, with a new life in Southern California, the past and the present linked up. The same game that helped him figuratively escape literal horrors in his youth, shined a light ahead as a career.

The goals led the way, illuminating the path. They still do. At the age of 39 or nine, it’s no matter.

Chasing Another Cup

Under the dim lights of an early round Open Cup game, his goal was pure Kamara. A broken play. A recycled cross from the left. There was the striker, lurking between two defenders. Forgotten. It’s not luck that brought him there, but instinct. Years of finding those magical gaps.

He rose highest and the goalkeeper had no chance.

For his celebration, under the outfield bleachers of the old baseball stadium, Kamara stood in front of a huge advertising board that screamed Go Where the Pros Go. He made his trademark heart-hands celebration (he was doing it long before its current upswing in popularity), signaling to the hundreds-strong band of LAFC fans who drove the long desert way from Los Angeles to Vegas.

“There’s nothing like scoring a goal. But you have to be focused all the time,” said Kamara, thinking about the pitfalls and potentials of the Open Cup. “Teams from the lower divisions, they’re hungry to beat you when you’re one of the top teams. You’ve seen it happen to MLS teams already this year.”

“Everyone wants to play in the Cup in our club,” he added, not envying Coach Cherundolo and his staff having to decide who plays and who doesn’t on matchdays – how to get the league-Cup rotation right. “It’s the mentality here, knowing every game counts and it’s five games to you lifting a trophy.

"All you can do is do your job to make sure you don’t get the club in trouble, that you don’t go off-beat” he said, back at it and preparing for a 22nd Open Cup game of his long career, against another one of those hungry second-division sides: Loudoun United of the USL Championship.

Kamara, who’ll be 40 should LAFC reach this year’s Final, is only thinking of how he can help the team get there. “All I want is to be able to give something positive to the other guys out there,” he said. “When the coach tells you to be ready, it’s your job to be ready.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.