More details came out in Sunday's Dispatch about the negotiations between Kei Kamara and Columbus Crew SC. Things are cordial, for now. Shawn Mitchell confirmed that Crew SC offered an improved deal that would bump Kamara at least over $675,000 in guaranteed compensation a year, but tellingly a deal hasn't been reached.
Kamara has been vocal about a new deal since returning from the offseason in mid-January. He was late to camp with an excused absence the team claimed was medical related, but has been a full participant since.
A hard line in negotiations may be fast approaching though. The Dispatch reported that both sides want the deal concluded by the start of the season 10 days away and if things aren't progressing, Kamara says he will hold out.
Kamara: Why Now?
Kei Kamara is 31 and is going into the second year of a three year contract. He will be 33 when the contract is due to expire at the end of 2017. He's coming off a career year with 22 goals and being named an MLS MVP Finalist.
Kamara's production likely does deserve a raise compaired to other top scorers in MLS. Bradley Wright-Phillip earns $660,000, a renegotiated deal after his 27 goal season in 2014. He added a 17 goal 7 assist season in 2015. Dom Dwyer got a pay raise afer his 22 goal 2014 season, up to $518,750 guaranteed. San Jose's Chris Wondolowski has consistently upped his salary since his breakthrough 2010 season and the MLSPA reports he takes in $675,000 guaranteed.
Kamara is also the third highest paid player on the team after Federico Higuain and Gaston Sauro. It's not a stretch to think he wants to move up the rankings. The reported offer would make him the second highest paid player on the team. It's unknown if he's targeting loftier heights. Higuain pulls in $1,175,000 guaranteed.
The length of Kamara's contract makes this offseason a make or break time. Kamara's barganining position will be weakened considerably by the end of the contract. At 33, he'd be on the downslope of his career. Many teams are hesistent to invest a long term contract on an older player as 34 year old Jermaine Jones is discovering (though the injury history and pending suspension also weigh into his situation).
Kamara has slightly less leverage than it might initially appear. At 31, the odds of an overseas suitor are diminishing. After one mixed stint in England, there probably isn't significant interest in a return trip to England. China has gone on a buying spree, but they've been targeting bigger names. Obafemi Martins moved for a reported $2 or $3 million dollar fee, but he also had high profile stints with Inter Milan and Newcastle United on top of his recent production. The European and Chinese league transfer windows closed until summer. A new deal in MLS is Kamara's best chance for a big payday.
Crew SC: One of 28
Gregg Berhalter and the team has a different set of constraints. Some of them are league imposed and others are more unique to Crew SC. It's not quite as simple as writing a big check with the salary cap in play and a likely desire to not set too big of a precedent.
Kamara is one of many players that Crew SC have to fit on the roster and in the salary budget. Kamara's guaranteed salary is over the Designated Player threshold, but he isn't a DP by MLS rules. That means that Crew SC was buying down his contract through General Allocation Money (GAM) in 2015. The team is likely doing the same this season.
For example, if Crew SC buys down Kamara's salary with $200,000 of Allocation Money, that would free up over $100,000 in salary budget space in addition to keeping Kei out of DP territory. Crew SC has committed to a raise according to reports, but it's still a strong possibility that the team would use some Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) to get Kamara below the threshold again.
There are constraints to using TAM has constraints. There's a limited amount, $800,000 over four years, and it can only be used on contracts under $1 million. If Crew SC are trying to reserve some TAM or free up salary budget space, they can only go so high in their offer.
The other constraint is that Crew SC are a victim of their success. Kamara is also one of a number of high performing players on the team. These are players that have likely outperformed their current deals. The team is taking care of some of these. Ethan Finlay was rewarded with an improved contract, but other players are likely looking to get raises after such a successful season.
The team has to be judicious in offering raises or they risk tipping the balance in the team's salary structure. Kamara has obviously outplayed his current deal, but that's true of players like Harrison Afful or Waylon Francis too. A significant raise for Kamara would give some ammunition to others who might look for a better deal. This reason isn't as hard and fast as the MLS salary budget constraints (truly), but still offers a pause for concern.
The issue is complicated and both sides are working from starting positions on opposite ends of the spectrum. Kamara has to protect his interests while Crew SC is managing in a league with salary restrictions. Finding agreement takes time and compromise. Time is running out and it's unclear how much either side wants to compromise.
If neither side can find common ground, then the likelihood that Crew SC starts the season without their star striker is getting higher than Black and Gold faithful would like.