Ahead of the 2018 season, Sporting Kansas City were in the market for a game-breaking attacker.
Peter Vermes and his staff were looking for a left-footed player who could play on the right wing, then cut in and wreak havoc and tilt defenses. They found Johnny Russell, who at that point was playing for Championship club Derby County. They honed in and eventually signed him.
Almost four seasons in, Russell has come as advertised. The Scottish international has 33 goals and 30 assists in 103 appearances (85 starts), replete with countless breathtaking individual moments.
“We loved that he was just so dangerous with his ability to single-handily have an impact and change the game," Vermes told media on a virtual press conference. "He could eliminate defenders off the dribble. Everybody thinks there’s a lot of guys who can do it, but it’s a skill, it’s an art. Those two things were eye-catching.”
Those moments will continue at Children's Mercy Park. Earlier this week, Russell signed a contract extension that keeps him in Kansas City through 2023 with an option for 2024.
“On the field, he does what Johnny does," forward Khiry Shelton said of the 31-year-old. "He makes plays happen, which trickles into the team. It’s just amazing what he does. I’m happy he’s staying for longer, I’m excited.”
Russell has performed up to his typical standards this year, with eight goals and seven assists in 24 matches (20 starts) as Sporting sit second in the Western Conference standings with seven regular-season games remaining. They return to action Sunday at 3 p.m. CT against Houston Dynamo FC, trying to leapfrog the Seattle Sounders as the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs near.
Off the field, Russell has been just as important.
“What I didn’t know was how great of a personality he had and the leadership qualities that I’m not sure he even knew he had," Vermes said.
After establishing himself as one of Sporting's leaders, Russell was named club captain this winter as club legend Matt Besler departed and later joined expansion side Austin FC.
“He’s his own person, he knows himself," Shelton added. "He’s established himself in that leader role. Everyone looks up to him. They feed off his energy.”