Sporting KC

Johnny Russell wanted to quit soccer two years ago. He’s thriving with Sporting KC.

Johnny Russell preferred not to make a big deal of it, hoping the incident would be disregarded rather quickly. But there it was, playing on an iPhone circulating through the Sporting Kansas City locker room.

Moments earlier, Russell, a 28-year-old Scottish winger, had two-hand shoved one of the more intimidating presences in MLS, all 5-foot-10 of him chest to chest with 6-foot-5 Vancouver defender Kendall Waston.

As Russell returned to the chair in front of his locker, his teammates watched the replay, using their fake Scottish accents to re-enact the confrontation.

“You were ready to (expletive) kick his (expletive),” one teammate said, and that finally elicited a sheepish grin from Russell.

This was the moment, many would tell Russell, that it appeared he belonged. It wasn’t the hat trick he scored that same evening, tying him for the team lead with five goals in his first season here. Instead, it was his willingness to sprint across the field and stand up for a teammate.

Yes, this was the moment, they would keep saying, that he appeared comfortable in MLS. Comfortable being himself in a new league, a new city, a new locker room.

It’s a nice narrative.

But it’s not really accurate.

He actually felt at ease months ago, he says, within hours of his arrival to Kansas City and after his departure from Derby County FC. That’s long before his five goals with Sporting KC, before his first hat trick in a half-decade, before he produced the MLS goal of the week.

That was part of the draw for Russell when he opted to join Sporting KC.

Relaxation. Happiness playing the game.

“I think you get the best out of me when I’m truly happy,” he says. “And I’ll say it again: I’m just enjoying playing again.”

There’s a level of conviction in his voice, and when pressed, he explains the reason for it.

Two years ago, he was done. Ready to quit. Or take a break, at least. If he possessed any other career prospects, maybe he would have followed through on that.

He began playing soccer when was 4, the oldest of four kids growing up in a three-bedroom home in Coatbridge, a small town eight miles east of Glasgow, Scotland. He had always stuck with it for its enjoyment, even as teachers pleaded with him to look for other career options.

But the pleasure of the game disappeared two years ago. After Derby County lost in the English Football League Championship playoffs, sweeping changes were made. People were blamed. Russell said he felt “a little stabbed in the back and betrayed a little bit,” opting against delving deeper into the details.

“I just completely fell out of love with the game,” Russell said. “I wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t enjoy training. I was coming to games, and I wasn’t enjoying the games, either. Games were finishing, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over.’ It was a relief.”

The alternative options were slim. He had never considered a different career.

When he was in high school, two teachers stood him up in front of his classmates and asked him how he planned to make a living. He answered that he would become a professional soccer player, and the teachers responded “by ridiculing me in front of the class.”

Russell dropped out of school a few weeks later. It had denied his request to take a week off to attend a soccer tournament. He went anyway. He was 15 when he left. He never returned. His mind was made up. A soccer career waited, and he spent all of his time working toward it. He signed a contract by 16.

“When I was younger, I didn’t see what school could offer me,” Russell said. “Which was a stupid way of looking at it.”

For a decade, he didn’t give it another thought. Never really had a reason to. But during the 2016-17 season with Derby, marred by injury and ill performances, he needed a way out.

MLS ultimately offered him one. A couple of American teams called late last summer, one of them two days before the transfer window closed. Derby County agreed to the transfer. Russell had always wanted to play abroad, and MLS in particular intrigued him. He vacationed in the United States annually. But two days was too little time for a life-changing decision, especially with a wife and newborn daughter part of the equation.

As more time elapsed, the 2017-18 season embracing only slight improvement, Russell wondered if he had made a mistake passing on MLS. Then Sporting KC called again. This time, the club had some help, enlisting the aid of former Kansas City Wizards player Mo Johnston, who was born in Glasgow.

“There’s no doubt we thought we needed some help in the attack,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “And Mo vouched not only for the kind of player he was but also the kind of person he was that would fit in our team.”

Derby was in second place in the Championship when Russell left for Kansas City, in line for a potential promotion to the Premier League. It’s a decision many on the outside saw as bizarre but one in which those inside his inner circle knew he needed to make.

His time with Derby had run thin. The wounds were unhealed. Above all, loyalty is the quality Russell emphasizes as the most important in his life, and he no longer felt it in Derby.

Russell married his high school sweetheart. Among his many tattoos is a portrait of his mother across his back. His group of friends is nearly identical to the one from his childhood. They trade jokes through text messages every day.

And when the best youth team in his hometown recruited him to play soccer, he turned it down. He already had a team. Why change? He owed it to his friends to stick with them.

“From an early age, my parents instilled in me (that) you need to have loyalty,” Russell said. “I could have left (my youth team) and gone on to win trophies, but I was happy. I loved what I was doing. If I’m happy, I’m not going to change anything.”

The team that recruited Russell — the one deemed the best in his hometown — had actually cut him three years earlier. As it advanced to a more competitive league, it considered him too small to keep up.

There’s always been a bit of motivation there. Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza says Russell has a bulldog personality on the field. The willingness to stand up to Waston, therefore, wasn’t a symbolic gesture. It was second nature.

“Culturally, he’s a part of the team. I underline ‘team’ about 50 times,” Vermes said. “Because he understands that he’s playing for this club. That’s one of the biggest reasons why I was excited to get him — because he wanted to come here, wanted to play in this team, wanted to play in this league.

“I think you can see it by the passion he has on the field.”

He’s been a difference-maker. Russell is tied for second in MLS with five goals. He was chosen the league’s player of the week on Tuesday.

On a team that struggled to solve defenses in the final third last season, Russell’s direct play has been a refreshing look. There’s an obvious confidence to his style of play that he says wasn't there the past couple of years.

It’s returned in Kansas City.

“That’s on the coaching staff and players here,” Russell says. “They gave me that belief back in myself that I’ve been missing for awhile.”