Sometimes certain players and teams become associated with specific parts of the pitch. There are the “Man City zones” along the sides of the opponent’s penalty box where Pep Guardiola has drilled his side to do so much damage, or “Sebastian Giovinco territory,” those Zone-14 areas where Toronto FC opponents dreaded conceding free kicks during the diminutive Italian’s reign of terror in MLS.
The Scottish winger is masterful in the right central channel when his team reaches the attacking third, drifting in from the flank to run at defenders with the ball on his preferred left foot. There he can curl a strike inside the far post, plus has grown comfortable chopping onto his right peg and shooting or centering for a teammate.
“That's kind of what my game has been based around, is getting into that sort of position, trying to get someone isolated one-on-one, close to the box,” explained Russell in a sitdown with MLSsoccer.com ahead of their Sunday visit to Minnesota United FC (1 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes). “I’ve still got speed that, even if a defender feels he’s showing me where he wants me to go, then I'm more than capable of shifting the ball there and getting a shot away or getting a cross away. A lot of defenders will try and show me onto my right foot, which is something that I've been working on.
“I’ll watch them, if I can see them starting to straighten up and get flat-footed, then I'll go,” he added, in what he calls “shaping up” his marker. “So I can try and dictate. As much as them trying to show me where to go, I try and dictate where I want to go. I try not to be forced anywhere.”
It’s a recipe for goals, and with 10 of those in his ongoing eight-match scoring streak, nobody in MLS is in hotter form at the moment. Russell’s fall surge has run his season total to 14 – level with the likes of Chicharito Hernandez and Hany Mukhtar in the Golden Boot presented by Audi chase – and powered SKC’s climb up the standings and into first place in the Western Conference.
“Honestly, I don't know. I don't feel anything’s changed,” said Russell when asked for an explanation of his current tear. He notes a preseason injury that disrupted his rhythm at the start of the campaign and eventually forced him to focus on his fitness. It’s also tempting to ponder whether his left-sided colleague Daniel Salloi’s career year has helped draw opponents’ attention and complicate efforts to drop numbers into the Russell zone for additional defensive help.
“I feel free, feel confident, and I'm getting in good positions, guys are finding me with the ball,” said Russell. “Everything I'm hitting right now seems to be on target and going in. So I know it's not going to last forever. But it's my job to continue to get myself in those positions, whether it's to score goals or create goals for my team.”
There’s also the new contract Russell signed a few weeks ago, re-upping the Designated Player through 2023 with a club option for ‘24. After Sporting’s shock home loss to Minnesota United FC in last season’s playoffs had brought that campaign to a shuddering halt, SKC informed him that they would exercise the 2021 option on his initial deal, which went back to his arrival in 2018.
Manager and sporting director Peter Vermes told Russell he also wanted him to stay for the longer term. Yet after on-again, off-again negotiations and speculation about his desire to push his way back into the Scottish national team picture, the future remained unsettled. Though some fans fretted that he might play out his deal and jet back across the Atlantic, Russell says his first choice was always clear.
“There was a bit of interest from back home and other places in Europe. But my number-one aim was to stay here,” he said. “I wanted to stay in this league, I wanted to stay in KC, that was the plan. And if that wasn't going to work out, then obviously I’d look elsewhere, see what there was.”
Kansas City is a long way from Glasgow. But the community has welcomed him, his wife Nadine and daughter Blake, helping them bed in to an extent that even he didn’t expect. Last year they welcomed the fourth member of their family, Julius, making him a native, another tie to the US heartland for a Scotsman who’s embraced the American experience.
“Coming here, I had no idea, anything, about Kansas,” said Russell. “That wasn't really a factor in me signing, it was more on the sort of football side of it. I felt I had to go somewhere where I would fit into the system. I wanted it to be somewhere where we'd be competing for trophies.
“I felt like I made the right choice that way and then everything else that came with it, it's been a bonus. I would never have imagined that I would have enjoyed living here as much as I have. My family have settled, I’m settled.”
Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented the Russells from visiting or hosting family from back home, didn’t cut the roots they’ve put down in the Midwest.
“Off the pitch, it’s really important to have that balance. But I've definitely found it here,” he said. “My kids are in school, they're enjoying it, and my wife's enjoying it. She's just starting to work now as well after having my son. So I'm happy off the field and I'm happy on it, so that made the decision so much easier.
“I love it here, I’d just been made captain as well. I feel like I've worked all of my career to be in a position to be captain, to be competing at a chance of winning things. I felt this was the best place for me.”
In retrospect, Vermes’ choice of Russell as the successor to longtime skipper Matt Besler looks inspired. The winger points out that SKC’s roster has several veterans like Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza with longer tenures than his own, and calls it “a huge boost” to have earned the trust of the coaching staff.
“You see what Johnny does on the field, but he’s an incredible leader with the group,” Vermes said earlier this month. “He has a great personality. He’s one of those guys that in the big moments, he doesn’t break. He bends, but he always comes back. He’s got more than just what you see him do on the field. He’s got a big presence with us and we’re lucky to have him.”
As his most productive season so far in MLS winds down to its business end, Russell is ready to complete Sporting’s quest for first place in the West and make the run to MLS Cup that has eluded the club in a variety of circumstances since their 2013 league title.
After doggedly pursuing early frontrunners Seattle for months, KC finally erased what was once a huge gap in the standings with their bruising 2-1 win over the Sounders at Lumen Field last Saturday. That contentious clash was marked by the surreal tussle between Tim Melia and Cristian Roldan that got so many tongues wagging this week, even more so after Russell and Zusi’s cheeky wrestling-themed goal celebration at midweek. Melia was absent through a one-game suspension by the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
“I really feel like some people have been overreacting. Could that have been a red in the game? Probably. I mean, Timmy got his suspension for it,” said Russell, who along with former teammate Gianluca Busio made a few headlines earlier this year for his propensity for pranks. “I just feel some of the reactions have been over the top. Obviously you don't want to see anyone hurt – Cristian wasn't hurt, he got straight back up. Some people are acting as if it was like assault on the street, and it was the heat of the moment, it was a massive game for both of us.
“I mean, they'll probably see it that way,” he said when asked if Wednesday’s celebration sought to troll Seattle. “It wasn't meant in that way. But if that’s the way that they want to take it, then that's fine by me.”
With their displays of quality this season (and respective fans sniping at one another), the prospect of an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs rematch between the West’s top two teams looks enticing. Sporting hold a game in hand on their Cascadian counterparts, giving them the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
Whatever the stadium site, though, the western road to this year’s MLS Cup final probably runs through the Russell zone.