At the end of the 2015 MLS Cup, a cordon of police on bicycles appeared on the edge of the field in Columbus, keeping a watchful eye on the Nordecke and, by extension, the shivering ranks of media behind them in the open-air tribune. It was a somewhat surreal sight, made all the more bizarre by a solitary figure in yellow enacting what could have been mistaken for a sit-down protest behind them.
In fact, Kei Kamara was contemplating what might have been, after he scored for the losing team in MLS Cup. Having missed out on Sporting Kansas City's first MLS Cup of their new incarnation a couple years earlier, having decamped to try his luck in England, Kamara had found himself as the figurehead of a Columbus Crew SC team that, much like the New England Revolution team a year earlier, looked to have stumbled on a winning alchemy in the second half of the season.
Whatever the limitations of said alchemy in the final, when Portland comfortably saw out the game against a Columbus attack that looked to have run fresh out of ideas, nobody could deny that this was a team that looked organized throughout, multi-faceted in attack and generally capable of building a legacy under Gregg Berhalter. If they'd fallen short in 2015, surely they'd be capable of going at least as far in 2016.
Well, no. And while there are many factors that help explain why, it makes sense to start with the man apart: Kamara.
Kamara can be an infectiously positive figure, but he's also a forward who isn't shy about expressing his worth, regardless of the feelings of others. By early May, he had expressed himself right off the Columbus team. Never mind the loss of his goals in a Crew SC jersey, the manner of Kamara's departure seemed to utterly derail the esprit de corps of the organization and built negative momentum that Berhalter has not yet been able to turn around.
The details of Kamara's departure are well-known. With his team leading 3-1 against Montreal Impact in the second half of a game May 8, Kamara was denied by his teammate and fellow Designated Player Federico Higuain from taking a penalty that might have given him his first career hat trick. Higuain scored, Kamara fumed, and in the aftermath, Montreal scored three goals to tie the game 4-4.
That might have been, had Kamara not expanded on the incident after the game by saying of Higuain: "That's selfishness. That's not a teammate." As if that weren't bad enough, Kamara went on to point out that any damage to his relationship with Higuain was hardly likely to affect his goal-scoring potential.
"I haven't really had to depend on 'Pipa' at all ... How long have I been here? How many goals have I scored? How many have come from his assists? One, maybe two. I don't depend on him. I depend on Ethan [Finlay]. I depend on my outside backs to pass me balls."
It was such an egregious breach of locker room omerta that Berhalter felt Kamara's position to be untenable, and within a week, he was shipped off to New England.
Yet what should have been a symbolic statement of authority for Berhalter has ended up taking on a life of its own. The incident and its aftermath have felt not unlike the Eva Carneiro incident at Chelsea; with each passing week, it becomes more and more apparent that the story of the season was written in a seemingly innocuous incident that ended up affecting everything around it.
That isn't to overplay the technical significance of it. The team had already started slowly when the Montreal farce happened, and clearly the cracks between Higuain and Kamara did not appear only in that game.
But it's also true that Kamara tends to be an all-or-nothing type of weapon. Initially, his arrival in the team seemed to give Crew SC a degree of directness and focus they had perhaps lacked against teams who figured out that you could nullify earlier incarnations of Berhalter's team by effectively man-marking Higuain. That effectiveness peaked in the 2015 playoffs, with Kamara's vital headed goal against Montreal.
But he brings his own challenges for the balance of a team. He wasn't wrong about the major supply lines for his goals, and as Portland proved in the MLS Cup, in which their full-backs stifled every Crew SC wide option, it's possible to set up to counter him. In his absence, Columbus have struggled to reshape their focus, especially in the crisis mode their season has drifted into, and they have not been helped by some ill-timed drops in form from their supporting cast.
Ethan Finlay in particular found himself relegated to the bench after a poor start to the season, and he was left off the U.S. Copa America roster. It was redolent of his slow start to his MLS career, rather than the superlatives he was attracting last season, and given everything else that was going on at the club, it was an ill-timed regression.
Finlay's current fate looks a little like that of his team this year. He has worked hard to get himself back into contention without ever looking inspirational. In general, Crew SC currently look like a team running down the clock on 2016, driven off course by a story that started in the corner of their home field at the end of 2015.