The potential for a fresh start lured Johnny Russell to Kansas City. His stay with Derby County FC in England had run dry, and nothing presented a more intriguing challenge than a destination 3,000 miles away.
In the transfer to Sporting KC, he was willing to relinquish an offseason but reluctantly obliged Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes’ instructions to take a two-week break before traveling stateside.
It remains the only intermission from soccer that Russell has received in the past 12 months. And that’s prompted a daily conversation between player and coach as Sporting KC grinds through the heat of the MLS season.
“I’ve never had a stretch like this in my career,” Russell said. “At times, I can get tired. But we still got another half-season to go, so I can’t think about that. I’m still young. I’m still fit. I’ll continue to keep going and keep pushing myself as long as my body allows me.”
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It was 53 weeks ago that Russell began training camp with Derby County for its 2017-18 campaign. By the time the Sporting KC regular season concludes in October, Russell will have played 16 months without a true offseason. A playoff run would further extend the workload.
The quandary affects a host of overseas players who make the move to MLS during the winter. It would have similarly impacted Sporting KC midfielder Felipe Gutierrez, but a sports hernia injury provided an unintended summer break.
Russell, 28, has just kept on playing. He tallied five goals and six assists in his first half-season in Kansas City, though he has not scored an MLS goal since his hat track on April 20.
On Wednesday, Vermes held Russell out of the starting lineup against Real Salt Lake, an attempt to give him a rare night off with a long-term plan in mind. But after a particularly lackluster opening half, Russell was on the field to start the second half. He recorded an assist in his 45 minutes.
“I have to be more cognizant of that,” Vermes said. “He’s a strong guy, but I just don’t want to overburden him.
“I’m more worried about the psychological (aspect). You can get a little, maybe bored is the wrong word, but I don’t want it to get monotonous for him. Every day, he has to keep playing, keep hearing about soccer. And he has for a year now. I have to think about all those things.”
It’s a dilemma that has faced Sporting KC more than this season than at any point in Vermes’ tenure. Last month, he preached caution with commanding a group of teenagers to play extended spells. It was the mental aspect that concerned him, not the physical one.
With Russell, it’s both. He insists his body is holding up, but on several occasions over the past week, Russell and Vermes have been seen talking in a one-on-one setting on the practice field, a coach seeking an honest update about a player’s well-being.
It’s more proactive than reactive. For now, at least.
“He constantly asks me how I’m doing physically and mentally,” Russell said. “I’m not going to be one that says I’m struggling. I want to play. Every time he’s asked, I’ve said I’m good to go.”
The breaks come in other manners. With his wife and 1-year-old daughter in Kansas City, Russell says he has made more of an effort to draw his mind away from soccer when he’s not at the training grounds.
“I know my body. I know I need to watch after myself,” Russell said. “But it’s one of those sports where you’re in that environment where your head has to be on every day. I’ve had to mentally sweat at times. Mentally, when you do get away, it’s good to relax, do different things and just take your mind away from it. It’s been working for me so far.”