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The Scottish Way – Russell brings needed elements to Sporting KC Attack

Winger like team legend Johnston. And then some.

Birmingham City v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Tenacity – the quality of being very determined. Syn: resolve, persistence, tirelessness, resoluteness

In 1996 (MLS’s inaugural season) The Kansas City Wiz, being molded by the very attack-minded Ron Newman, had offensive flair in the magical left-foot and cutback of Serbian midifielder Preki; the speed and craftiness of American winger Mark Chung, and the quickness and incisiveness of Zimbabwean forward Vitalis “Digital” Takawira.

But it was not until Scottish forward Mo Johnston joined the side a few games into the season that they had a forward who worked tirelessly and smartly in and around the box to do the dirty work and be an opportunist. That gamesmanship, that tenacity, and soccer IQ completed the attack and enabled the Wiz/ards to score goals and win in a multitude of ways, which they did 38 times in 64 games during the first two seasons, finishing 2nd and 1st in the conference, scoring a remarkable 118 goals in the process.

Now Johnston, a Sporting Kansas City Legend who tallied 31 goals with 28 assists in 149 appearances through the 2001 season, has brought Sporting Kansas City fellow countryman Johnny Russell.

It’s not surprising that Johnston alerted Sporting KC to Russell’s availability and recommended him. Players always have a special eye for players like themselves. From highlights of the 27-year-old winger, one can see Russell is not one to back down. He twists and turns to get his head on crosses, he bursts past defenders, and shoots like one who says, “You can try. But you will not stop me.”

“That’s another quality… it’s a determination. He’s a guy that likes to go at people, which is what we like and want in our system of play,” Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes told reporters in a conference call yesterday after the acquisition of Russell was officially announced.

Yet Russell brings more than Johnston’s drive and grittiness. The 5’10” 168 lbs. left-footed attacker lacks the pure speed of Gerso Fernandes on the right wing, but he brings flexibility and a welcomed diversity to the attack.

“He can play on either wing. And he’s different on both wings – if he plays on the left, he is a great server of the ball, he’s good 1 v 1, explosive, can get past people,” Vermes said. “When he’s on the right, he is very good at coming inside, beating guys, and scoring.”

And Russell is in his prime at 27 (Johnston arrived at age 33) with vast experience, something 21-year-old winger Daniel Salloi does not yet possess. And plays with an in-and-around the box confidence that sometimes winger Jimmy Medranda has yet to show.

“He has a lot of experience in playing under a lot of pressure,” said Vermes. “Playing at Children’s Mercy Park is not an easy place: It’s always packed. It’s a great environment. I think he will relish the fact that he is in that kind of environment.”

In Vermes’ tenure the 4-3-3 formation has been a staple. Arguably, it has become somewhat stale and predictable despite last season’s additions of the speedy and skillful Gerso and the now-departed Latif Blessing. With the additions of Russell, Designated-player Yohan Croizet, and those Vermes hinted are still coming, predictability will be a thing of the past.

“The 4-3-3 is always going to be the foundation of how we play, but with the quality and the different types of players we are bringing in it is going to give us a lot more flexibility in what we can and can’t do from game-to-game and within the game itself,” Vermes claimed. “It’s exciting from a coaching standpoint to be able to have that flexibility.”

Russell’s qualities will force defenses to adjust and be wary – from his highlights he knows a well-timed long touch can create separation – and send multiple defenders to try and stop him.

But highlights are highlights… “high” points of one’s play. Russell’s goal-scoring record is not glittering. It’s good. 34 goals in 203 English Championship appearances with Derby County. Thirty-four goals one-step below The Premiership is nothing to sneeze at. But evaluations from pundits and those more familiar with the Scotsman across the Web say he’s an adequate finisher, hot-and-cold. And time will tell if Russell has Johnston’s acumen in the box, the soccer IQ to find spaces and make intelligent and timely runs.

But if Russell brings Johnston-like numbers to the attack (6g, 9A in ’97 and 11, 2 in ‘98), he will be a welcomed addition.

“We need to be better in the attacking-third, and there is no doubt in my mind that [Russell] is going to help with that (not to put all the pressure on him by any means),” said Vermes. “But he is one of those players who possesses qualities that can really lend themselves to success in the final third.”