Stejskal: Why Johnny Russell chose Sporting KC over a Premiership shot

Daniel Salloi -- Johnny Russell -- Celebration

Johnny Russell knew he wanted to sign with Sporting Kansas City.

He just didn’t know when he’d be able to make the move.

The Scottish attacker first learned of SKC’s interest in him last December, just as he was in the midst of a Premier League promotion chase with English Championship club Derby County. He was in a good place on the field with the Rams, playing a large role on a team that looked like a strong contender to finish in the top two in the Championship and earn automatic promotion to the EPL.

Off the field, things were less certain. Russell was in the last six months of his contract with Derby and had rejected multiple contract extension offers from the club. The 27-year-old had spent his entire career in Scotland and England, but he was intrigued by the idea of playing outside the UK. He was particularly interested in MLS, which he’d been watching for a few years via late-night Sky Sports broadcasts.

So, when Sporting came calling, Russell listened. He chatted with head coach Peter Vermes, who sold the winger on the club’s ambition and his vision for how Russell would fit into his high-pressing, direct-attacking system. He learned about Kansas City from fellow Scot and former Kansas City Wizards striker Mo Johnston, who played for the club from 1996-2001 and was teammates with Vermes and SKC assistant Kerry Zavagnin during his time in MLS.  

After a few weeks of research, Russell was sold on SKC’s offer. Forget the Premiership – he wanted to move to the Great Plains.

“We were in second at the time, so obviously there was a chance of being promoted to the Premier League, but I just felt that now was the right time,” Russell told Wednesday.

Mind made up, Russell still had to figure out how to get to Kansas City. Since he was in the final six months of his deal, Russell could’ve signed a pre-contract with SKC in January, played out the season with Derby and moved to MLS in July. He indicated Wednesday that he would’ve been willing to do that, but SKC and Derby both wanted to make the move happen on a quicker timeline. That meant the clubs had to get together to negotiate an exit.

Thankfully for all parties, Derby were accommodating. Despite Russell’s key role with the team, they agreed to sell him to SKC for a small transfer fee that an English outlet reported at $280,000. A SKC spokesman wouldn’t comment on that figure on Wednesday, but he did confirm reports that Derby will receive a percentage of any transfer fee if SKC sell Russell during his three-year contract.

“I just felt it was something that was right, and I wanted to do at that point,” Russell said. “When I said that’s where I wanted to go, then the club made the decision that it should be sooner rather than later. I know they need to protect themselves. There would never be a lack of commitment from myself, but I fully understood their point of view.”

Russell’s early arrival has been fortuitous for both the attacker and SKC. Along with fellow SKC newcomer Felipe Gutierrez, he's been one of the top offseason additions of 2018 and has helped revamp a Kansas City attack that struggled last season. He's started all three of their games, recorded a goal and assist in their 4-3 win at Chicago on March 10 and earned another assist and drew a penalty in their 3-2 win against San Jose last weekend.

He’s been a natural fit in Sporting’s fast-paced system, showing direct attacking play and an ability to help lead SKC’s press from his spot on the wing. That stylistic fit was a big reason why he was initially drawn to Kansas City.

“That’s one of the main things we spoke about and that’s one of the things that made this decision easy,” Russell said. “It’s pretty similar to how I’ve played before, so it wasn’t as if it was a massive shock.”

The off-field transition has been somewhat seamless for Russell, whose wife and young daughter arrived in Kansas City last week. He’ll leave them to head to Colorado with SKC on Saturday, where he’ll go up against a few familiar faces on the Rapids. He played with Colorado defender Danny Wilson on Scotland’s Under-21 national team and faced off with former Wolverhampton midfielder Jack Price and ex-Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith when they were all in the Championship.

He’s hoping that extra familiarity will help him lead SKC, who lost their opener 2-0 to NYCFC, to a third straight win this weekend.

“It took a while, obviously, for everyone to gel, but I think the last couple of games everyone’s seen that it’s coming together pretty nicely,” he said. “The opener was obviously disappointing, but we’ve worked hard and I think we’ve shown signs that we’re improving all the time.

“It’s not been difficult, it’s been pretty easy actually,” he added later. “Got my family out last week as well, so that’s given me a nice little boost. It’s been a great experience so far; hopefully it continues.”