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Film Study: Johnny Russell is Good at Soccer

A review of film from the Sporting winger who bundles up goals and assists year after year

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Sporting Kansas City
The final goal of Russell’s season came in pk’s against San Jose in the Western Conference playoffs
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With the offseason in full swing giving us sad faces (good luck in Austin, Matt!) and hopeful signings, let’s have some fun reviewing a pillar of Sporting Kansas City’s attack over the last three seasons. Johnny Russell has won over the hearts and minds of SKC faithful through a gritty work rate, flashy goals, unselfish assists and a Scottish accent that makes every post game interview must-hear tv. Also, I recently discovered he’s an incredible human to boot (The Athletic paywall disclaimer).

I won’t rehash the stats from 2020, and you can find the breakdown here, but suffice it to say the metronomic output of goals and assists over the last three years bears revisiting (this season’s output would get to almost 10 goals/10 assists prorated over a full slate of games). Some film of Russell’s goals (and one assist) this year is what follows, along with a breakdown of the individual and team efforts that highlight the critical influence he brings to the team.

Goal #1: MLS is Back vs Real Salt Lake

The very first goal of his season is a full on scrum following a corner kick. Russell is actually the short man on this set piece, standing at the top corner of the box nearest to Gianluca Busio, the corner kick taker. Watch Russell’s movement as he drifts from solidly marked to wide open at the penalty spot:

Russell gets himself in a dangerous position during the scrum by drifting further away from his man and more central in the box. While this goal isn’t the most spectacular he’s ever scored, that movement in the box is highly underrated and almost impossible to track. The technique and power generated on an off-foot and off-balance shot is impressive while the movement in and around the box is a constant theme from all of his goals.

Goal #2: SKC vs. Houston Dynamo, August 25th

A game I’d rather not remember, however Johnny Russell scored his second goal of the campaign (from the Left Wing!). I love this goal because it is a classic Sporting tactical maneuver:

I feel like we have seen this goal numerous times over the years; Graham Zusi bringing the ball up the right side and cutting in towards the left, the Right Winger (usually Russell) making a hard run across the rear of the defense and the ball getting played down the line. Gerso does well in isolation to deliver a ball into the box and finds Alan Pulido’s run to the near post (more on him later) and a few lucky bounces finds the ball dropping at Russell’s feet, which he buries. While this goal isn’t a classic JFR moment by any means, it’s a wonderful system goal - the threat of Zusi on offense is still a reality check for defenses, Gerso’s pace is always unnerving, and finally Pulido’s hard and crafty runs in the box drag the central defenders out of shape.

Goal #3: SKC vs. Minnesota United FC, September 13th

A tense 0-0 affair cracked open by a single pass and run.

Here is the pace on full display - Russell recognizes that MNUFC is caught upfield and out of shape and starts his run in and behind the defense. MNUFC makes the mistake of pressuring the second ball too slow (the original pass is contested by Matt Besler and falls to Zusi - these are the “second balls” that create dangerous transition moments. The best team defenses almost never lose these kinds of 50/50s). So much credit to Zusi here picking out a perfect ball over the top, and it’s suddenly 1-0 Sporting in a matter of seconds thanks to some calm finishing by Russell.

Goal #4: SKC vs. FC Dallas, Sept. 19th

The second round of three against FC Dallas this season, and it’s another set piece goal for Russell:

I’m not sure how much to take away from this, but I love the tenacity with which he always displays as he gets closer to the goal. The Expected Goal (xG) was 7 percent which is tiny - basically since tracking xG there is a 7% chance that a player would score from that position. Johnny Russell eats those odds for breakfast.

Goal #5: SKC vs. FC Dallas part II

Goal number two in the game to tie it up is from set piece number two:

Weirdly Dallas decides to leave Russell unmarked here, they are in a partial zone marking with two defenders about four yards straight off each post. The rest of the team is man-marking, but watch the slowest movement of Ilie’s career lead to an unmarked Russell six yards from the goal. He casually drifts into the same zone as Russell, forcing the near post man to choose which SKC player to mark (he chooses neither somehow). One of the other FC Dallas defenders is pointing at the open Russell and yet in a bang bang delivery to header the game is tied up. Smooth from Ilie and calm and cool from Busio to Russell.

Goal #6: SKC vs. Orlando FC, Sept. 23rd

The final run-of-play goal from Johnny Russell is another elegant team goal. It’s tempting to watch the ball the entire time, but watch the movement instead of Russell:

Man Ilie drives me nuts with his sometimes lackadaisical defensive coverings, but his distribution is an absolute weapon. Same for Zusi here with another nice ball over the top. Gadi Kinda does well in a tough spot, and it eventually falls to Gerso who picks his head up and finds Russell at the back post. The whole time Russell has been drifting in and out of the far-side defender’s vision, and he ghosts into the back post to slam home the header. The poor defender never stood a chance, but this movement is the kind of stuff that opens up a defense.

Closing Thoughts

It really is a joy to watch Johnny Russell be good at soccer. This season didn’t produce as many wonder goals, but his workload varied more from year-to-year. Using data from SmarterScout, his statistics are all relatively the same for the last three years except in 2020 his “defending quality” (meaning his opportunities to defend combined with his ability to shut down scoring opportunities for the opposition) more than doubled. Not only was Russell carrying a similar offensive output to years past, but he upped the completeness of his game. I’m guessing this change is a large part of why the captaincy was handed to him, and why MLS called him the best RW in the game in 2020. For the sake of brevity (hah) I didn’t include his assists from this season.

A few random observations from reviewing these goals:

  • Russell scored his last run-of-play goal in the week before Pulido left for national team duty with Mexico. Pulido was alternately out for COVID protocols or injured, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Russell’s attacking output dropped with more teams focusing on him as the lynchpin. It’s hardly revelatory but having your best players out there makes a difference, something SKC experienced to it’s full effect this year.
  • Gerso is much maligned for his final deliveries, but in both of his assists he picks out the right pass and plays it about as well as anyone could. I’ll be bummed if he isn’t brought back, even if I think Sporting could do with an upgrade.
  • How do we feel about Busio’s set piece deliveries this year? Even on these few corners in this article they have been underwhelming. I’m glad for the kid to get a chance to stretch his skills, but I don’t know if I’d have him taking so many set pieces next season.
  • When the offense is clicking and the ball is pinging around the field, Sporting plays some gorgeous offensive soccer. Here’s to hoping to see more of it next year!