Sporting KC

Every team is out to stop Sporting’s Johnny Russell and he’s become better for it

The video evidence doesn’t match Johnny Russell’s description. Not really anyway.

As Sporting Kansas City’s winger dribbled to the edge of the penalty box in Sunday’s game, four Seattle defenders traced within a couple of steps. Any of them could have attempted to make a play on the ball — attempted to prevent what happened next.

And yet in recounting that sequence, his second of three goals in Sporting’s 3-2 victory, Russell’s first inclination was to say this: “I found a little space that I haven’t been finding recently.”

Space?

“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “This year, there’s a lot more teams just killing space.”

Johnny Russell, in other words, is a known commodity.

In 2018, his first year in MLS, he was one of 11 players in the league to reach double digits in both goals and assists. By year’s end, as he streaked down the right flank inside Children’s Mercy Park, the noise would grow in anticipation of him cutting back to his preferred left foot.

In 2019, as the goals keep coming, there is anticipation of a different variety.

From the opposition.

“Everyone in the league knows him and tries to mark him close — not just with one or two guys but maybe three or sometimes four,” midfielder Ilie Sanchez said.

Russell noticed it some late last season. But the constant marking — and quantity of the players responsible for it — has become more regular this year.

The attempt to slow him is ever present. If it doesn’t work, credit the adjustment.

“I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t been frustrating not being able to play the way I want to play,” Russell said. “But I just need to remind myself that if I’m not getting space to play, I can drag someone somewhere else, and it gives another player a bit more space. If teams want to (defend me) like that, we’ve got more than enough quality to hurt teams in other places. I’m happy to do that.”

And yet despite all the attention he has garnered, the numbers are still there. Russell has seven goals after the hat trick Sunday, tied for fourth in the league.

The space certainly appeared Sunday. Maybe it was a product of Yohan Croizet playing a deeper-lying central forward role. Starter Krisztian Nemeth, who also has seven goals this year, serves as more of a primary option when he’s in the lineup.

That’s one theory, and it has credibility.

It’s not the preferred one for Sporting coach Peter Vermes. The club possessed the ball better Sunday than it has in quite some time. That’s his simplistic answer. When it comes to Russell, Vermes talked at length about creating opportunities to isolate him. That derives from lengthy spells of possession.

The message during practice is this: If Sporting KC wants to offer its playmaking wing more opportunities, the focus should be on the buildup. On keeping the ball. On making a defense account for all options.

“Look, everybody knows that (Lionel) Messi is Messi. But how is it that Messi can do what he does game after game? It’s not like teams don’t go into (the game) saying, ‘We never saw this guy before; what do we do? Everybody tries,” Vermes said. “But in the end, there’s improvisation in the game. Different teams at different moments are doing things that guys like him are assessing, evaluating and then coming up with solutions. And it’s the same thing, in this case, with Johnny.”

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