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“It has to come from within.” Johnny Russell, Sporting Kansas City footballer, on ambition

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Johnny F Russell talks ambition: His own. His family’s. And Sporting KC in 2021.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at FC Dallas Tim Flores-USA TODAY Sports

In the 86th minute of last season’s Western Conference semifinal – 47 minutes after Minnesota United FC’s Bakaye Dibassy put the visitors up 3-0 permanently – Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell is in the middle of the center circle. It is the right place to be, even for a right winger far from his flank: Sporting needs the ball and Russell wants it.

There, he instinctually intercepts a Kevin Molino pass and efforts to begin a Sporting attack. Yet his fatiguing touch lets him down and the moment passes. Far after the game is lost, still three more Herculean efforts come from Russell before the final whistle, including lifting a stagnant opponent up off the pitch so the two can carry on playing.

His full name is Johnathon Simpson Snedden Russell. But he is known to the more Kansas City faithful as Johnny F Russell. The Glasgow, Scotland, native’s undying ambition is a big part, but not the only part, of the reason for the moniker.

“The area I am from [Coatbridge], was not really a great area, not a lot of opportunities,” said Russell, inviting the idea that his environment supplemented his natural determination in a recent phone interview with The Blue Testament. “It’s a small area, not a lot to do. But it was all I knew growing up. I knew that I wanted to pursue football as a career and move on, move elsewhere.”

Russell’s father had similar dreams. His dad was an “extremely good golfer.” However, injuries and some health concerns curtailed his goals.

Both of Russell’s parents turned their passions outward. Each became a banker, before his mother became a full-time caretaker for Johnny and his three younger siblings. His father remained, specializing in helping people optimize their money and finding a way out of debt.

Clearly, Russell’s parents were determined in helping others, exuded passion in giving of themselves. Russell internalized the cues, manifesting them in many ways from the beginning of his playing career.

“I had to have [determination] when I was younger: I was always smaller. I always played a year or two ahead of my age,” said the now 5’9”, 175 lbs Russell. “I felt like I always needed more fight than normal… It has to come from within; it has to be your decision.”

That fight, that fire can often have its roots in struggle. Overcoming the odds can be the proudest moments of a lifetime. But many never reach those heights without support.

******

Sixty-second minute. The do-or-die 2020 playoff match. Sporting down 3-0 now for 23 minutes. A tackle wins the ball for Minnesota near their own box. But Russell sees it coming. In his fight, Russell tracks back to strip Molino who has beaten Sporting’s #6 Ilie Sanchez, then, in full gear, Russell dribbles to the center circle to lead a Sporting break. Three other such moments would ensue by the 82nd minute, not to mention winning a flick-on header over a much taller opponent, running 40 yards to pressure the opposing goalkeeper, and absorbing a reckless hit.

No professional career comes without times of struggle. While with Scottish Premiership side Dundee United from ages 17-22, there was a spell where Russell was not playing as much or as well as he would have liked and was sent out on loan. Self-motivation got him through. Another, deeper, struggle, one of nearly losing his love of playing after an upward move to English Championship side Derby County developed over time. That battle is documented by Sam McDowell of the Kansas City STAR here. This time, overcoming took more than himself.

“My family has always been there through all the highs and the lows,” said Russell of their undying support. “It’s not just me; they are right there with me. It’s good to have someone outside of the game to get a perspective on things.”

Yet inside the game, especially one in which your side is at home and inching closer to hosting MLS Cup, one in which your side is the favorite over Minnesota United FC, one in which a win means one step closer to lifting a trophy, and literally everything has gone wrong, it must be difficult to retain one’s focus, one’s motivation.

“When you put the jersey on, you owe it to your teammates, yourself, your family, the fans who come. You are doing a disservice if you go out there and don’t give it your all,” Russell stated. “… I’m never going to lose a game because I’ve stopped fighting. There comes a point in a game like that when you know the game is gone. But that doesn’t affect my mindset until the game is completely over… It’s a constant need to win and perform and compete that gives you the drive.”

That’s Johnny F’ing Russell: “It’s a fire to compete. I want to be the best. I want to win.”

******

Twenty-first minute. With three significant Sporting chances already erased and Minnesota finding dangerous spaces, Russell throws his body on the pitch at the top of his own box to block a fierce opponent’s strike labeled for goal. There is no lament in his play over his not taking two of those earlier chances. The first in the 2nd minute was an excellent, under-pressure lift over the ‘keeper that was cleared off the line just in time by MUFC’s Michael Boxall; even the most self-critical could not blame himself. The second, 12 minutes later, a breakaway with coming pressure and an oncoming goalkeeper. Perhaps Russell took one too many touches before putting his shot into Dayne St. Clair. Perhaps it just was not meant to be.

Even today, Russell still feels the sting. In the moment, though, any lament must quickly fade.

“You can’t doubt yourself. You’ve done the reps over and over again; you know exactly what it is you should be doing,” Russell relayed. “We can all have bad days when your touch isn’t there, your passing isn’t there, your finishing isn’t there. If you can get yourself in the mindset of just getting the basics right and never doubting yourself, that is a massive step. Dumb it down. Keep it simple.”

The basics. They are the things we all deserve to have, to give to ourselves and to others close to us. Assuring the basics keeps the drive alive. And one’s environment is the most basic of the basics.

Russell will turn 31 on April 8th. He has played in the top league in his native Scotland with Dundee United. He played with storied club Derby County in the English 2nd Division. He has played in MLS, America’s league on the rise. This offseason he expressed his remaining desire to play for his childhood heroes Celtic. At some point during this season, as his contract with Sporting Kansas City runs out in December, Russell will have to make a decision on where his future lies, where he best feels his immense drive will flourish.

“The decisions I’ve made in my career have always been what’s best for me. I never rush a decision. I always weigh up everything. When I do make a decision, I don’t do it half-hearted. I have to feel it’s the right one,” said Russell.

“I’m coming into my last year here. I want to win here; that’s why I came here. I want to win trophies. It’s the last year of my contract, but I don’t want it to be. Right now, I would really like to stay here. We will have to wait and see what happens with this year.”

In an analogy to his growing up as a soccer player, Russell’s Sporting KC side is not Los Angeles Football Club, not Atlanta United, not Seattle Sounders. The market is smaller, the names not as big. It will take more fight than normal to rise to the top. In 2018, Sporting was in the Western Conference final, on the doorstep of MLS Cup. In 2019, Sporting made it to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Last season, they fell hard to Minnesota in a West semifinal. Johnny Russell has never lifted a trophy in his professional career. But nothing has made him doubt what he wanted to do.

Sporting’s far and away most consistent producer over the last three seasons (25 goals, 23 assists in 65 games) knows 2021 is, again, not going to be a normal year as the COVID influence remains. The focus now, of course, is “making sure me and the team are in the best possible shape for the season.”

For a club whose overall defensive scheme has been… inconsistent in its effectiveness (to put it kindly), the best possible shape is finding the key in locking down opponents’ attacks.

“We have tweaked a couple of things in the way we set up and the way we press. We are trying to set traps for teams. It’s been working really well in training; it worked very well against [USL side] Phoenix [in the first preseason match]. A lot of the stuff we’ve been working on we took into the game, which is pleasing because we only had two or three weeks working on it. That shows that everyone is really concentrating in the training sessions,” intimated Russell.

Johnny Russell will continue to be who he is no matter. It comes from within. And the Johnny F’ing Russell legend will grow.

The audacious goals he scores – from left-footed benders to marauding, trick-filled, determined runs through multiple defenders – often elicit fan reactions from “oh hell yah!” to “what the F did I just witness?” Russell’s ensuing celebrations often reflect triumph, sometimes release from a nagging frustration he felt earlier in the match, and always rage with overwhelming joy.

But the moniker is more than that. It is his occasional in-match barking at opponents. At training, it is his injection of fun during the work. Both there and in the locker room, his good-natured chiding of his brothers in arms creates an atmosphere where anyone is welcome. It is a fan asking if he will sign a Sporting flag with “Johnny F’ing Russell” and his “let’s raise a little hell” grin of agreement. With Russell, a good time is guaranteed.

The Scot’s energy and vivid personality would have completed a well-knit glove of near brashness on the MLS Cup winning 2013 Sporting squad. Imagine Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer, Kei Kamara, Aurelien Collin, and Russell. Now that’s a swashbuckling fab five.

It’s possible that Russell’s impact would have been muted on that side. However, In the last years’ and the current Sporting roster, Russell comes to the fore. His personality gives life, inspires, and leads. And now that Matt Besler has left the side, arguably even before, one could say that this Sporting team is his team. His and veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza’s. Both are in the last year of their contract: Espinoza re-signing in the offseason and Sporting picking up Russell’s option.

And now, fittingly, Russell has been officially named the club’s captain. What does he see as his biggest responsibility in that role? Like his parents, Russell is passionate in giving of himself.

“Just to be a leader, be there for my teammates. Be a connection, someone they feel they can come to if they don’t feel comfortable going to the staff if they have any questions or concerns… to be that middle ground between staff and players,” Russell stated. “Ultimately, be a guy my teammates know that every session I’m on the pitch I’m going to fight for them no matter what it is. I’ve got their back. I just want to be a guy that my teammates can rely on.”

Go on with it, Johnny. Go on with it.