Preview: Johnny Russell and Scotland kick off UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying Thursday in Kazakhstan

Scotland at Kazakhstan
UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying | Group I
Thursday, March 21 | 10 a.m. CT | ESPN3, WatchESPN
Astana Arena | Astana, Kazakhstan

Johnny Russell had no time to relax and admire his stunning free kick in the late stages of Sunday's 1-1 draw between Sporting Kansas City and the Colorado Rapids.

Instead, the 28-year-old Scot hopped on a cross-Atlantic flight to join the Scotland Men's National Team for the start of UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying. The Scots open their Group I campaign Thursday at 10 a.m. CT, venturing to the continent's eastern outskirts for a matchup with Kazakstan that will stream live on ESPN3 and WatchESPN.

At No. 50 in the latest FIFA rankings, Scotland are the second-highest ranked team in an intriguing group that includes world No. 1 Belgium as well as 2018 FIFA World Cup hosts Russia. The six teams in the group will square off in a home-and-away, double-round-robin format between now and November for a total of 10 games. The top two finishers will advance to the tournament finals, which is scheduled to take place in 12 cities in 12 different European countries during the summer of 2020.

Even if Scotland fails to secure a top-two finish in Group I, they will have another shot at qualifying for the competition via the Euro 2020 playoffs one year from now. Scotland earned a spot in the Euro 2020 playoffs via their first-place finish in Group 1 of the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League C, which also resulted in promotion to League B for the 2020-21 tournament.


1 Belgium 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
40 Scotland 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
50 Russia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
87 Cyprus 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
117 Kazakhstan 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
211 San Marino 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Russell has appeared in each of Sporting’s seven matches this season, including both legs of the club's aggregate wins over Toluca and Independiente in the Concacaf Champions League. The dynamic winger, who opened his 2019 scoring account on Sunday, is coming off a tremendous 2018 campaign that saw him become the fourth player in Sporting history to hit double-digit goals and assists in a single regular season.

A breakout with Sporting has facilitated Russell’s return to the Scotland national team. He has earned five of his nine career caps since June 2018, having previously represented his country four times at the senior level from 2014-2015. On the current 26-man roster assembled by Scotland head coach Alex McLeish, Russell is the lone player to ply his club trade outside of Europe.

Scotland Roster

Goalkeepers (3): Scott Bain (Celtic), Liam Kelly (Livingston), Jon McLaughlin (Sunderland)

Defenders (8): David Bates (Hamburg), Stuart Findlay (Kilmarnock), Scott McKenna (Aberdeen), Stephen O'Donnell (Kilmarnock), Liam Palmer (Sheffield Wednesday), Andrew Robertson (Liverpool), John Souttar (Hearts), Kieran Tierney (Celtic)

Midfielders (8): Stuart Armstrong (Southampton), John Fleck (Sheffield United), John McGinn (Aston Villa), Callum McGregor (Celtic), Kenny McLean (Norwich City), Scott McTominay (Manchester United), Callum Paterson (Cardiff City), Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)

Forwards (7): Oliver Burke (Celtic), James Forrest (Celtic), Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth), Oliver McBurnie (Swansea City), Marc McNulty (Hibernian), Lewis Morgan (Sunderland), Johnny Russell (Sporting Kansas City)