Following a training session Monday, Ola Kamara grabbed a seat, sipped a cup of coffee and exhaled. The past week had been a whirlwind: D.C. United and Kamara, the team’s new Norwegian forward, had just returned from a trip to Vancouver, where he substituted for Wayne Rooney in a 1-0 loss. Before that, Kamara had flown to Toronto and back. Before that — he took a breath describing this — he had flown 24 hours from Hong Kong.
Kamara spent the past few months in China, although he would prefer to put that experience behind him. Just before the season started, the LA Galaxy sold him to Shenzhen for an estimated $3.5 million. But he played only five games in the Chinese Super League — that bugged him — and rarely saw his wife and 3-year-old son, Willian.
“I don’t think there was any progression,” he said. “Mentally, it was always a different challenge. What happened in China makes me more hungry. For me it was just bad timing. It was what it was.”
Earlier this month, Kamara, 29, was at the center of the second-largest transfer deal in United history. The club paid an estimated $2.5 million transfer fee to the Chinese team and sent $250,000 in allocation money to the Colorado Rapids for the right to move to the top of the MLS allocation list, which is used for select players returning to the league.
Kamara, a member of the Norwegian national team, is a pure goal scorer who wants to hover in the box, make it look simple and get in position to do what he does best.
On Wednesday night at Audi Field, Coach Ben Olsen’s team (10-8-9, 39 points) hosts the New York Red Bulls, six points behind first-place Atlanta and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference. United has won only two of its past nine matches. Seven games remain on the schedule.
Kamara bolsters the offense and complements Rooney (team-best 11 goals, seven assists). Out of 24 MLS teams, only three have fewer goals than United, and only two have fewer assists.
Olsen hinted that Kamara and Rooney won’t play together right away but that they will eventually. And next year, Olsen said, “obviously with Wayne moving on, [Kamara] will be the primary No. 9.”
“Good movement, high energy, and he really understands how to get on the end of service,” Olsen said when asked what he has come to appreciate about Kamara. “Now it’s a matter of him building some relationships and understanding the players who will provide the final ball for him, and them understanding his movements. That takes a little bit of time.”
Whereas Rooney can score, pass and play multiple possessions, Kamara is “about scoring goals, movement and connecting the game,” Olsen said. He’s a natural scorer with a knack for seeing where the ball will go, then doing what he can to put himself in the right position.
Kamara grew up in Oslo. His father moved there from Sierra Leone as a refugee; his mother is Norwegian. Kamara played for several clubs in Norway, 1860 Munich in Germany and Austria Wien in Austria. He scored 16 goals in 25 appearances with Columbus in 2016, when his base salary was $425,000. He notched 18 goals in 34 games the following year.
All told, he is a veteran with poise. And when he is on his game, he doesn’t have to hit the ball well to reach the back of the net.
“Sometimes I just need enough body on it to get it into the goal. It’s a quality not everybody has,” he said. “That’s kind of my focus all of the time. If you hit it well and it goes top corner, that’s a good feeling. ... Scoring goals — feeling the atmosphere, the energy — it’s an unbelievable feeling.”
It’s a feeling Kamara hopes to experience again and again. He wants United to gain momentum, and he wants to get into a rhythm for a D.C. club that has been shut out 10 times this year. He knows his fitness isn’t where it needs to be, and that it could keep him out of the starting lineup for now.
United needs Kamara. And in a way, he needs United.
“The last couple years, I’ve played 30, 40, 50 games,” he said. “It’s physically exhausting to play a lot of games, flying back to Norway, play, play, play. When you don’t play that much for five months, you get a different hunger.”
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