Sporting Kansas City had been in search of consistent scoring threats since they traded away Dom Dwyer in the summer of 2017. They’ve got them in loads now, as they set a club record this year for goals scored in a season.
It had been a stated goal for Sporting KC to find goals in the 2017-18 offseason, and the search and focus on almost everyone else’s mind was a striker. Enter winger, Johnny Russell.
Russell has been a perfect fit in Kansas City. He’s transitioned into Sporting’s setup almost seamlessly, contributing 10 goals and 10 assists in his inaugural MLS campaign. Now his new club is a game away from MLS Cup, welcoming Portland to Children's Mercy Park Thursday night (8:30 p.m. CT on ESPN) for Leg 2 of the Western Conference Championship in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The move from Derby County this past January helped him continue to fulfill his own ambitions as well.
“I wanted to come to a team where I knew that we were challenging for something,” Russell told MLSsoccer.com. “I’ve still got ambitions to win things, I didn’t come over here to relax, which is what a lot of people probably thought at the time. But we’re one game away from getting to the final. It’s a decision that’s paid off for me.”
It seemed like SKC fans yearned for the type of player they could really latch onto after Dwyer left. They’d wanted the personality and, just as importantly, the goals. They’ve found it in Russell, which was evident in the tifo that The Cauldron unveiled for him before their Sept. 30 home match against Real Salt Lake.
“I’ve been lucky wherever I’ve been that I’ve always seemed to have that bond with the fans,” Russell said. “But since I’ve came here it’s been amazing. I’m really grateful for it. The tifo was really unexpected. It was amazing to see. And even just the small things, interacting with the fans, interacting with some of the younger fans, it’s been a great experience and one that I’m really grateful for.”
A year prior, Russell’s exuberance wasn’t what it is now. After a difficult end to the season at Derby, things went wrong during the summer break, and he lost his drive and love for the game. He blames the situation on himself, and saw how it was starting to affect his relationships outside of the game as well.
“I knew I was in a bit of a rut and needed to change something,” Russell said. “So the season that started in England in 2017, I started to enjoy myself again. And then coming here, I just felt it was the right time to try something new and try and get that spark back I’ve been missing for a while.”
Russell’s love for the game returned, and so has his confidence. His hat trick against Vancouver on April 20 endeared him to the Sporting KC faithful, as they saw the type of player they had in Russell.
“I’m a player who is always going to try things,” Russell said. “I want to get people on their feet, I want to excite people. A lot of time it won’t come off, I know that. But when things weren’t coming off I was letting it get to me. So I wasn’t trying anything, so then I was just getting lost in games. So that’s something I feel that I’ve got back.
“That’s probably the main part of my game. I like to get the ball and drive at people. I like to try to make things happen, if not for myself for other people. That’s something that I was missing, that feel that I’ve definitely got back now.”
Russell now finds himself on the precipice of making it to MLS Cup. The playoff experience has been similar to that he experienced on multiple occasions with Derby County in the Championship as they fought for promotion. He vividly remembered one final in his first year at Derby.
“We played probably the most dominant game I’ve ever played in and we lost one-nil. They scored on a counter attack in like the 94th minute. I know how hard it can be getting to this stage and losing. So it’s not something I’m thinking about or letting on my mind.”
Russell continued: “We’ve got one focus. If you would’ve said to us at the start of the season that you’ve got one game, at home, to get to MLS Cup, we would’ve taken it right away. We’ve worked hard to get to this position. We’re here now and we know what we have to do to make sure that MLS Cup can be our reality.”