Sporting KC

Why Johnny Russell chose Sporting KC over a chance to play in the Premier League

New Sporting KC wing Johnny Russell, right, was intrigued by the prospects of a jump to MLS. He toured the Sporting facilities on Wednesday and then joined the club at spring training in Arizona.
New Sporting KC wing Johnny Russell, right, was intrigued by the prospects of a jump to MLS. He toured the Sporting facilities on Wednesday and then joined the club at spring training in Arizona.

More than 3,000 miles from the United States, Johnny Russell frequently sat inside his home and flipped on the TV. During the weekends, he found himself settling on channels showing American sports, particularly Major League Soccer. He had never lived in the U.S. — only visited a handful of times even — but there was a certain appeal to it.

“Over the last few years, playing in (MLS), it became something I’ve been really interested in doing,” Russell said in a phone interview with The Star. “But it had to be the right move.”

Sporting Kansas City called nearly two months ago, and truth be told, the timing of it wasn’t ideal. Not initially.

Russell was a regular for Derby County, a club within position for elevation to the Premier League. When he envisioned a move to the United States, bypassing a potential jump to the Premier League wasn’t part of the plan. Kansas City wasn’t exactly the determined location, either. Russell, who was born in Scotland, has vacationed in the United States, but those stops were Orlando, New York and Miami.

So he did some research. He spoke with former Kansas City Wizards player Mo Johnston, another Scottish player, about the idea. He asked Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes about his perceived role within the team.

Apparently, he heard enough encouraging feedback. Russell signed a three-year contract with Sporting KC last month.

“It was time to try something different, to have a different life and play a different type of football,” Russell said. “I talked with my wife, and this felt like the right place for us.”

Russell visited Kansas City for the first time Wednesday, touring the team’s new training facility, Pinnacle, and Children’s Mercy Park. “Probably the best facilities I’ve been at, especially the training center,” he said afterward. He joined the team’s preseason camp in Tucson, Ariz., later Wednesday evening.

A desired move for Russell was a necessary one for Sporting Kansas City. The club has been searching for ways to bolster an offense that scored just 40 goals in 34 MLS games last season before being shut out in its knockout-round playoff loss.

Russell, 27, projects as a wing in Vermes’ 4-3-3 formation. He has scored 94 goals in his 11-year career.

“His resume up to this point speaks for itself,” Vermes said. “I think that he has really good attacking qualities that can obviously provide us with something that our team needs — that is we need to be better in the attacking third. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s gonna help with that.”

The stylistic fit was a draw for Russell, too.

“I like to be involved in teams that press higher — the higher you win the ball, the closer you are to goal,” Russell said. “I think that’s always been a strong point in my game when playing in the UK.”

His wife and daughter — who turns 1 in March — will relocate to Kansas City later this month, he said. It’s a quick adjustment in terms of his life away from soccer.

It’s a quick adjustment on the field, as well. Russell missed the first three weeks of preseason. Sporting KC opens the 2018 schedule on March 4.

“I played quite a lot of games in a short space of time (for Derby County), so I’m fit. It’s not like I’m starting from the beginning of preseason. I’ve got that base fitness,” Russell said. “But it’s just about getting ready with your team, getting to know your team and the way that the manager wants me (to play). I can’t wait to get started.”

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