Sporting Kansas City winger Johnny Russell played only 18 minutes for Scotland over the past seven days during his most recent international call-up, a lighter-than-usual workload that may allow Peter Vermes to lean on him more heavily in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship against the Portland Timbers on Sunday (7:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN2, TVAS).
Russell had started two of Scotland's first three matches in UEFA Nations League before making only one substitute's appearance in the most recent November break. That previous minutes burden had made Vermes think carefully about how to use one of his key attacking pieces down the stretch of the MLS season, given the draining nature of intercontinental travel.
"I’ve been concerned in regards to Johnny for a long time, and he knows that." Vermes told reporters on Wednesday. "I’ve told him that the biggest thing is I have to figure out a way how to manage him over the course of our season. Because if Scotland calls him back, at the end of the day, they’re just looking at it as, they need a guy to play the game he’s going to play. It doesn’t matter what he comes to us like. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s just the way national teams operate. And so the onus has been more on us."
While Russell has started 26 league matches, Vermes utilized him as a sub in each of SKC's matches immediately following his return from the September and October windows. The stakes will obviously be higher in Sunday against the Portland Timbers, especially with Diego Rubio suspended on yellow card accumulation for the first leg, and Vermes knows what role Russell would prefer.
"He’s a warrior, he really is," Vermes said. "He’s a tough guy, physically and also mentally. Many times he says, 'look, I’m fine, I’m good, I can play.' He wants to play, and I appreciate that. But I also have to do what I think is right over the long term."
Russell had 10 goals and 10 assists in his first MLS regular season. He also contributed a goal and an assist in Kansas City's 4-2, second-leg victory over Real Salt Lake in the conference semifinals, after offering a man-of-the-match performance in the first leg, a 1-1 draw.