Long before Jurgen Klinsmann was lassoing German leaguers into the US national team, there was Kamani Hill.
The relaxed Bay Area native ripped up youth competition and found himself venturing over to Europe and the Bundesliga at the precocious soccer age of 20.
Hill impressed enough at Wolfsburg to earn himself eight starts at the German division first side.
Contemplate that for a second.
Jozy Altidore was 18 when he signed with La Liga’s Villarreal and was loaned out from the 1st team to lower division Xerex. Clint Dempsey was 22 before he splashed down in London.
Hill was in the ripe age where his development to date had reached high enough of a level for him to learn and progress at the top stage. It’s how players with arching ceilings develop.
However, following Hill’s European peak at Wolfsburg, a steady stream of revolving coaches and curt emails put him back in the States–the victim of player churn and a reminder that being an American and attempting to integrate into the the European soccer business rat race is almost always impersonal and very often cruel.
And so the beginning of 2012 left Kamani Hill on a worn out turf field in Portreo Hill in San Francisco playing against none other than yours truly.
That’s just out of whack. Out of place.
Our team the SF Black Sox had heard we were up against a US national and had—like rec teams do—keyed on one figure—hill of course—to stop.
Only Kamani was using this for exercise….and he didn’t try….and he pretty much killed our team as much his his right foot as with his kindness and sportsmanship. With four goals to his credit that evening, the endearing memory of the match was more Hill continuously murmuring to both his team and ours, “That’s a really nice pass.” or “Oh that’s a well-played combination.”
That brief commentary by Hill is indicative of a personality of a grounded person with a quiet confidence. No need to showoff and plenty humbleness to take the game in stride despite the glaring chasm of talent between his and everyone else’s.
A player who knows he’s got the chips to make a big play, a career; not one with the chip on his shoulder.
Hard not to root for player, a person, like that.
Matthew, TSG: I don’t know if Tony [Tony Alejandre, Kamani’s agent] told you, but we actually played against each other a few months ago.
Kamani: Nah he didn’t. Where?
TSG: San Francisco. Makes sense you didn’t know. You know, not a remarkable event your life.
But I want to talk about it for a second, what I, and the guys on the team were impressed wit more than anything was not how, well, fluid and graceful you were in possession, but that you consistently played within a team concept even though you could have scored probably about 15 with your cleats untied.
Kamani: Ha! I had my reality checked for a few months.
I was trying to incorporate the team. It was good fun and I was just trying to staying as fit as possible. I was going to Berkeley on Monday to play and then out there to San Francisco on Tuesday. Anything just to play and stay in shape.
TSG: Well, if you want I’ll let you apologize to our goalie for bending a ball over the wall and making him look like a moron on a set piece that looked like it was just second nature to you.
Alright, let’s get to the interview and the more interesting stuff.
Just let stuff fly. Be bitter. Be happy. Be you.
Kamani: I always try to be a little diplomatic, but I’ll be honest and straight.
TSG: First thing, how in the hell did you end up with the Rapids?
Kamani: I was—let’s see—I would have to go back a little ways to give you the whole picture of the story.
TSG: Okay, let’s go.
Kamani: I was playing in Portugal for Vitória de Guimarães
I was having trouble breaking through to the first team in the 2010-2011 season. But I was there the whole, I was playing a lot with the reserve team.
That season I doing pretty well, had some good moments. I scored the game winning goal in the reserves final.
I was a regular contributor at the senior team practice and I had another year on my contract.
I thought the next year I had a real good chance to breakthrough to the senior side. I had one more year left on my contract
Right before the next season though the team sent me an email and said they didn’t need me to come in.
TSG: Woah, they sent you an email? That’s it?
Kamani: Yeah, that’s just how they do business.
TSG: In English or Portuguese?
TSG: So they just sent you a message in Portuguese saying that your services wouldn’t be needed. That was it?
Kamani: Yeah they sent me a couple of sentences saying you know, don’t come in for the preseason.
TSG: Did you use Google Translate or something?
Kamani: Nah, I understand it now and I read Portuguese.
Basically, they sent me that email and I knew my options were either to see if the club wanted to loan me out or whatever.
At that moment–after being there for two years and not getting a real opportunity–I was like, ‘I’m done with this and I’m ready to move on.’
So we negotiated a buyout and that was in early August 2011.
By the time that happened, I came back. I wanted to get into MLS but it was close to the end of the window and that didn’t have enough time to really happen.
So I was just like, ‘I’m just going to look to get into MLS the next season and keep training.’
After that I trained with the Earthquakes until the end of the season because I’m from the Bay Area, but then my agent got me an opportunity to train with Hammarby in Sweden in November after the season.
So I had a trial in Hammarby
It went really well from there and the coach–who is now the assistant coach–really liked me.
But then they hired another coach [former US national Gregg Berhalter] after my trial and he decided that he wanted to bring in his players.
So, they had give me the okay to come join the team on January 5th that they weren’t going to bring me in and then I got an email January 1st saying they didn’t need me to come in.
Kamani: And that’s all you get. You just get an email. And that’s the business of things.
TSG: You’d think you’d get more than email?
Kamani: You would think…
So Hammarby fell through. Then I was back to the States and scrambling to reorganize and come up with a new plan with a week before the MLS season.
A lot of the MLS teams already had their rosters set. And basically I was just doing that training at home, waiting…
TSG: Is that essentially Tony and you calling around? And just, you know, hustling?
Kamani: A little bit of everything.
You call around to people you know. Just trying to get into any situation.
At the time, despite the past year, I was like, “I know if I go somewhere, it’s going to be hard for them to send me away once they see me.”
I felt good. I just needed to get in somewhere.
It took me until March 10th to get somewhere and that, thankfully, was Colorado.
Kamani: It was personal triumph for me to get that first goal.
TSG: How do you see yourself fitting into that club. Most of the talk going in was that you’d be used more as a striker or forward?
Kamani: No, the coach [Oscar Pareija] says he’s going to use me mostly as a midfielder and a little at striker. He basically wants me to be an attacker and score goals.
I’ll be midfielder that’s attacking or a striker that drops deep into the midfield from time to time.
TSG: And, now the Rapids are primarily using a 4-3-3, you’ll be the top of the linking players.
Is that by design? React to that.
Kamani: How I look at progress is you always fall of the radar if you’re not playing. You’re not playing, you’re not in the media.
I was playing, but not on the first team.
I was struggling a little bit to break through.
Europe is hard. The situations were crazy.
When I was in Portugal in the first year, we changed coaches four times.
In Germany, I had a very good start; 11 Bundesliga games.
After six months, they switch to Felix McGrath [of Jermaine Jones fame as well] who spent €24M in the first window and bought 14 players.
It’s just part of the business and every player deals with it at some point in their career.
TSG: It’s more intense in Europe because you’re American, right? How did you navigate the landscape?
Kamani: When I started, there was an agent here and he took me out there for a trial. It’s hard to have an agent that’s not there.
What people don’t understand….football in some ways is a very face to face business. You need an agent that knows the direction of clubs and has established relationships then it’s much easier than phone calls and emails.
If it is very important to have an agent that’s really in the market you’re trying to play in.
TSG: So they loaned you out to Vitória de Guimarães.
Kamani: I started there and went on a trial in the ’09 season. The coach that liked signed me in May and they fired him in June.
The next coach was there for a month and they fired him and brought in a third coach who said he didn’t see me as part of the team.
TSG: Now being in Colorado, how do you look back at Europe? As positive opportunity or a wasted one?
Kamani: In all of soccer you have to look at things you can control but the things you can’t control you have to be at peace with it.
If you’re always trying to fight with it, well the business has a life of its own…it’s going to fight against it, it will make you unhappy.
It wasn’t a wasted opportunity .
I came out of Europe 5 times the player I was when I went in.
TSG: Talk about going up against players that were schooled differently in the game. What did you bring that they didn’t and vice versa.
Kamani: In Germany, it was a very physical and fast.
My coach in Germany was always saying that organization, discipline and mental toughness.
Kind of like the culture…very…German. So coming out of UCLA as an out-and-out attacker, I had to learn a lot more about defending, about that organization. What my responsibilities were without the ball.
Also in Germany. They have a really high standard. If you’re giving away the ball you’re just not going to get it anymore. It’s that simple.
TSG: And that’s intra-game?
In Germany, a lot of the football they really try to capitalize on mistakes and force teams into mistakes by defending well. That’s the game there.
And then when I cam to Portugal, definitely an asset of mine was my athleticism. People, players were smaller.
In Germany , they played 4-4-2 and the point of the game was get the ball wide, cross it and crash the box. Portugal is keeping the ball and creativity.
In Germany, the back four was supposed to be very solid. In Portugal, they are supposed to fly up the sideline and stay high.
Whole different tactical games.
I learned more about free-flowing offense in Portugal.
There was a lot of Brazilian influence on our team. We had about 10 to 12 Brazilians. We finished 5th in Portugal and qualified for Europa Cup.
So both great and unique environments.
TSG: So contrast present-day MLS to those leagues. Rate it.
Kamani: MLS is obviously different. I think our football culture is not as developed of course.
You go to a country like Portugal and all the teams play the same system. All the teams have Portuguese coaches. Everyone is schooled the same way.
It’s a countrywide systematic development of players.
Here we have so much diversity.
Some coaches want to play 4-4-2 , some a 4-3-3.
It’s so dispersed about how we develop players and it’s really hard to define a US style and say, ‘We play this type of football.’
Athleticism here is awesome, but with the ball, it’s not as fluid as playing in Europe.
TSG: This is great stuff. What are some of your goals for this year?
Where do you see yourself now in four or five years. Do you look that far in advance or are you just content playing now?
Kamani: Yeah, you have to set your goals. Obviously I want to be back in the national team.
What I have to focus on is being sharp in training and being someone the coach trusts.
When you’re sitting on the bench, it doesn’t matter what goals you have it’s not going to happen.
TSG: If I’m correct, your last national team game was the same as another new MLS guy. Lee Nguyen. Back about five years ago to be precise.
Kamani: I don’t know we’ll have to see how the season unfolds.
TSG: C’mon man.
Kamani: We’ll have to watch. I don’t like throwing out predictions like that. I’m rooting for both of us.
TSG: Let’s discuss your teammates like we do to end all inters. Best dressed Rapid?
Kamani: Kosuke Kimura…he wears scarves everyday and tight pants.
TSG: He wears scarves every day?!
Kamani: Every day, even when it’s hot.
TSG: Who’s the one player you’re bringing to a kid’s birthday party?
Kamani: Probably Marvell Wynne. He’s the most sociable and people are drawn to him. Kids would be too.
TSG: Who wins in an arm wrestle, you or Drew Moor?
Kamani: Probably Drew Moor. I got to hit the weights..
TSG: Alright man, I know you got to go. One more thing, you got to get on the Twitter and improve your profile.
We ‘ve got to get you some followers.
Kamani: Yeah, social media, I don’t like that stuff.
I mean. I feel you. I need to get on that stuff.
I just don’t know who wants to hear what I have to say everyday.
TSG: I don’t know. I think this interview is pretty interesting….
Alright, we’ll catch up with you soon. Oh and can you apologize to our goalie?
Kamani: Oh yeah tell him sorry about that.
TSG: Good luck this season.
Kamani: Thanks man. I appreciate the time.