The former Norwich City and Middlesbrough man is a game-time decision for Sunday's final after suffering a right leg knock during the Crew's final training session.
While many have Columbus Crew SC down as favourites going into Sunday’s MLS Cup final against the Portland Timbers, that could well change if attacking talisman Kei Kamara is not in the starting line-up.
The 31-year-old striker, who returned to MLS last winter following a largely disappointing spell at Middlesbrough, finished as runner-up to Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco in the league MVP voting after netting 22 goals in 32 regular season appearances, while he has since scored a further three times during the Crew’s postseason run.
The last thing the team wanted to see on the eve of the final, then, was the 6ft 3in front man go down with an injury in their final training session, but that’s exactly what happened just 27 hours before kick-off.
Kamara lay still on the MAPFRE Stadium grass after jumping and landing awkwardly on his right leg, and while he later left the pitch on his own power, head coach Gregg Berhalter told MLSsoccer.com after the incident that he was unsure on his star man’s status.
"I haven’t had a chance to assess it yet," Berhalter said. "So I’m going to go in the locker room and figure out what happened and figure out what the treatment is and if he is going to be available. My guess right now is that he’d be available.”
Update: Kei Kamara suffered a right leg knock during Saturday's training session and will be a game-time decision on Sunday.— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) December 5, 2015
Subsequently ruled a game-time decision by the Crew, Kamara is still tentatively expected to be in the starting XI to face the Timbers, but if the worst comes to the worst, Berhalter would need to do some tactical tweaking.
Jack McInerney would be the likely replacement if the former Norwich City loanee is unavailable, but while he holds a solid record of 38 goals in 143 career MLS games, he's also cut from a different mould than his fellow forward.
At 5ft 10in and only 151lbs, the 23-year-old simply doesn’t offer the same physical threat up top as the Crew’s leading scorer, and Berhalter has acknowledged that his potential inclusion would have to result in a change of gameplan.
“It would change,” added the Crew boss, who led his side to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference in his second season in charge. “The top goalscorer in the league would not be playing in this game so it would affect us. We’d have to regroup, come up with another idea, another plan and try to execute it within 27 hours, a short period of time.”
The Crew do have plenty of other dangerous attacking pieces in Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, Federico Higuain and super sub Cedrick Mabwati, but Kamara’s absence would make life much easier for Liam Ridgewell and his fellow Portland defenders.
The 31-year-old Englishman has been struggling with an injury himself in the run-up to the final, having missed last weekend’s 2-2 draw at FC Dallas in the Western Conference Championship after straining his calf in the 3-1 first-leg win, but all indications are that he will be lining up alongside centre-back partner Nat Borchers on the afternoon.
Having captained the Timbers for most of 2015 due to usual skipper Will Johnson’s fitness issues, the former Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion defender is also set to lead his side out at MAPFRE Stadium in their first MLS Cup appearance since entering the league in 2011, and his experience of over 250 Premier League games will be crucial if does have to match up with Kamara.
“Every single week we come up against a great center forward, and every week someone has asked me, ‘You’re playing against Robbie Keane. You’re playing against Obafemi Martins. Now you’re playing against Kamara,’” he told MLSSoccer.com. "Someone might be able to jump more than someone else or might be quicker, but the tactics for me and Nat are always the same.”
With full-backs Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana also impressing in 2015, the Timbers’ solid defence has undoubtedly been key to getting them to Sunday’s final, but at the same time, there's plenty to like further up the pitch, too.
Newly-capped US international Darlington Nagbe has been arguably the league’s standout player in recent months after moving into a central role with defensive midfielder Diego Chara and Argentine maestro Diego Valeri, while in Fanendo Adi, head coach Caleb Porter has a striker who offers the same kind of imposing presence in the opposition box as the Crew’s Kamara.
The 25-year-old Nigerian hit 16 goals in the regular season and two more in the playoffs, and it will be up to Argentine centre-back Gaston Sauro to keep him in check for 90 minutes or longer if extra-time is needed.
The summer signing from Basel was out injured back in September when the two sides last met, as an Adi brace handed the Timbers a 2-1 win on the road, but his towering frame has since been a welcome addition to Berhalter’s side during the latter stages of the campaign.
The same can also be said for Harrison Afful, who has established himself as one of the league's top right-backs since his mid-season arrival, while homegrown midfielder Wil Trapp has been just like a new signing since his return to the side.
The 22-year-old was sidelined for nearly three months after suffering a concussion early in the campaign, as the Crew faltered without his precise passing and calming presence in the centre of the park, and their transformation following his comeback emphasises how crucial he will be to their efforts to stifle the Timbers and his former college teammate Nagbe.
Prediction: Crew SC 2-1 Timbers
Ultimately, Sunday’s final may not have the star power that many were hoping for, but despite the absence of household names like Steven Gerrard, Sebastian Giovinco and Kaka, there is little doubt that both teams deserved to make it this far.
The pair are both astutely run franchises with talented and tactically flexible rosters, and their recent success is testament to how important depth and scouting is to building a winning outfit in “MLS 3.0”.
The MLS original Crew, whose one previous final appearance saw them secure the 2008 title with a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls, have the obvious advantage of hosting on account of a superior regular season record, but if Kamara is not 100 per cent fit and Nagbe and Adi can continue their recent run of form, then few should be surprised if the Timbers end up taking the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy home to the Pacific Northwest.