It's A Big Celebration

The timing couldn’t have been better for Kei Kamara to tie Landon Donovan for second place on MLS’ all-time goal-scoring list

Kei Kamara 145 goals LAFC at Austin 061924

It was fitting that the moment came in a downpour, against formidable odds, and with time running out.

When LAFC forward Kei Kamara rose above the mass of rain-soaked players near Austin FC’s goal and headed home the 145th regular-season goal of his MLS career – tying him with U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Landon Donovan for second place on the league’s all-time list and earning his hometown club a 1-1 draw – the desperation of Kamara’s 90th-minute equalizer paled in comparison to the 39-year-old’s childhood in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he came of age during a brutal 11-year civil war.

It was also poetic that the goal arrived on Juneteenth, the newly-recognized American holiday that recognizes the day in 1865 when U.S. soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, following the end of this country’s Civil War, and informed the enslaved persons there that they were free. Kamara had just hosted a youth roundtable on the subject at BMO Stadium a few days earlier.

“Special day today obviously, Juneteenth, a celebration,” Kamara said after the match in Austin. “It's not just June 19, but it's my 19th year playing professionally. So it's a big celebration. And I want to say thanks to everybody that paved the way for us to be here, for me to be here, as a Muslim refugee from Sierra Leone, and having the opportunity to be in America and in continuing to achieve my dream and being happy. I'm really, really happy about that.”

After arriving in the United States and being granted asylum at age 16, Kamara was reunited with his mother in L.A., which has been his family’s home base ever since. The simple game that he’d played as a child in war-torn West Africa, as an escape from the violence around him, shepherded Kamara through a decorated career at Leuzinger High School, just south of Los Angeles, then a championship-filled college run at nearby Cal St. Dominguez Hills. The ninth overall pick in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, Kamara spent the next two decades playing football around the world, mostly in Major League Soccer (where he has suited up for 11 different clubs), but also in dozens of appearances for the national team of Sierra Leone, where his story began.

His motivation, he says, has always been his family. “My phone is full of messages,” he said after Wednesday night’s momentous goal, “which is good. Again, it's always for them. I want to celebrate for my family. But I've built a pretty good family over here [at LAFC] in the past few months that I've been here, and to see the joy on all the guys’ faces – coming into the locker room after the game and seeing them celebrate the goal more than I'm celebrating that goal, it's huge. And again, yes, it's a celebration. Some of them are like, ‘Nah, just enjoy the moment.’ But I'm like, ‘Guys, you don't even know how big that goal was for us, not to come out of here without three points.’ So they will celebrate it for me more than I'm gonna celebrate it.”

“The big man has always shown his quality over many, many years,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo, “and he is moving up the list for most goals in MLS, and we're very proud of him.”

When Kamara, who signed with LAFC in March, was asked for the secret to his sustained success, the oldest player in MLS replied: “The secret is to be happy at what you're doing.

“Don't do it for the money, do it for the passion and everything else will follow. But I enjoy this game. I live for this game. Like I said, I'm blessed to be here in America to have this opportunity that I've had to enjoy a dream. But that's why I try to show every day, even when I'm here with these guys. You know, they might look at me as the oldest player in the league, but I carry myself as the youngest player on the team.”

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