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Is SKC's Johnny Russell making an early case for MLS MVP?

Monday 23rd April 2018

Friday night football takes some adjusting when you’re used to getting the weekend started rather than staying at home. Broadcasters are doing their best to keep us from having social lives. Like gridiron and European football, Major League Soccer has expanded its fixture list to feature one or two matches every Friday evening.

Because the biggest matches are reserved for optimal viewing times, Friday night fare is hit and miss. Last week was a bit of both. Sporting Kansas City hosted Vancouver Whitecaps at Children’s Mercy Park. The game paired the first and third-placed sides in the Western Conference. That sounds an enticing match-up, but Vancouver’s leaky defence suggested it might be a one-sided affair. It was. SKC rolled to a 6-0 victory.

Sometimes, such games can be as tedious as a goalless draw. This one was eventful. It featured a hattrick and a mad melee in midfield. Sporting’s prolific new winger Johnny Russell was involved in both.

Dundee United and Derby County

The 28-year-old Scot signed with the MLS franchise this winter. Manager Peter Vermes was seeking a replacement for Dom Dwyer. The Englishman had been traded to Orlando in the summer, which is midseason this side of the Atlantic. Sporting was sitting fourth at the time, but the goals Dwyer took with him cancelled any hope for an MLS Cup run come season’s end. Because MLS is a salary-capped league, finances are part of the competition. Dwyer’s contract demands made the trade necessary.

Russell came over from Derby County in the Championship. In 205 appearances for the Rams, he scored 35 goals and assisted on another 34. He was involved in a goal every 187 minutes, or just less than one every other game. Not too shabby but also not lighting it up in the second tier.

In his time prior at Dundee United, 119 appearances produced 45 goals, 16 assists, and a goal rate of 1:147 minutes. Considering Russell is nearing thirty and therefore at the peak of his powers, the numbers may suggest the Championship was his ceiling in English football. The average second-tier player makes less than £500,000 annually, or roughly $700,000US if the Daily Mail has it right. A move to MLS, where he might be able to earn a Designated Player salary worth twice that, surely appealed to Russell.

The American Dream

Sporting KC acquired him for a reported £250,000. He signed a three-year deal with an option for a fourth that will pay a targeted allocation money salary. TAM is a step below Designated Player status. It allows an MLS franchise to pay over the wage cap for a talented player but establishes a maximum that rivals a top Championship salary. If Russell continues to play as he has in the season’s early doors, he may be able to renegotiate his deal to a DP salary next winter.

An MLS season is 34 games. The eight SKC have played are just short of the quarter-mark. Russell’s five goals project to 20+ for the full season. As he gets to know his new teammates, his assist rate may improve, allowing him to reach double digits in that category.

The Scot opened his account in his second game, a 4-3 victory over Chicago Fire. His second came against LA Galaxy, two weeks ago. It was a thriller. He took on two defenders from the right flank, split them, then beat keeper David Bingham.

He came into last Friday’s match against Vancouver with two apiece in goals and assists, and showed he had more in him. On ten minutes, he ran onto a squared ball just inside the 18 and scuffed it through a defender’s legs then off the inside of the post. His second was far more impressive. Six minutes later, he cut in from the left, feinted towards the endline, cut inside a second time, and drilled a low shot inside the far post. The third arrived in the second half. Meanwhile, other things happened.

Handbags

First, Jimmy Medranda joined the fun. Daniel Salloi dallied with the ball near the left corner flag in the final third before dishing it back to the Colombian. When no one closed him down, Medranda nudged the ball forward then stepped into a howitzer that Whitecaps keeper Stefan Marinovic was too slow to parry. It rocketed over his head before dipping under the bar. The word is golazo.

Down 3-0 after only a half-hour, Vancouver’s mood soured. Play grew chippy. As the half approached, Roger Espinoza exaggerated a Kendall Waston tackle. As the Honduran spasmed in a fetal position on the pitch, Waston stood over him, loudly expressing his disgust. In charged Russell, because Scottish footballers have tempers, too, as the Glaswegian's two straight reds during his time at Tannadice Park can attest. As Russell chested up with a man a head taller than him, approximately 17 other players arrived on the scene.

Yordy Reyna threw Russell to the ground. Russell scrambled to his feet but before he could do more than shove Reyna, Efrain Juarez punched him. Sensing matters were reaching critical mass, Medranda stepped in, hustling Russell away. The Colombian had the presence of mind to understand SKC needed their in-form winger on the pitch in coming matches, if not necessarily the rest of this one.

Big Brother

Referee Kevin Stott had a mess to sort. Back in the day, by which I mean 2017, he would have had to rely solely on his own eyes and those of his linesmen. He likely would have handed out a few yellows to calm nerves and preserve the remaining entertainment value in what was already a one-sided contest.

Now, MLS has VAR. Stott jogged to the booth, returned, assessed two red cards, to Reyna and Juarez, then a single yellow, to Russell. This is the unfortunate side to VAR. It not only helps officials make more accurate calls, sometimes it forces them to when the convenient excuse, “I didn’t see it,” allows for a better option: discretion.

Peace in our time

With Vancouver down to nine men, the final few minutes of the half were played in a sullen silence. The players then went into the dressing rooms, hopefully to sip tea from demitasse cups, eat cucumber sandwiches, and listen to a soothing chamber orchestra. Afterwards, the match resumed with Russell quickly erasing any doubt over the result.

From a short corner, he raced along the end line unchecked until he could smell the cucumbers on keeper Marinovic’s breath, then chipped over the utterly disheartened netminder. With his player's hattrick in the bag, Peter Vermes had the good sense to sub Russell off the pitch before the Whitecaps got it in their heads that a little vigilante justice might be in order.

Star turn

Three-quarters of the season remain. Much can happen. Nevertheless, Johnny Russell’s start to MLS life has been fantastic. He plays at speed, with talent and ruthless passion. That is exactly the type of player every MLS franchise wants and needs.

Some already have one or more. Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron light up the Mercedes Stadium for Atlanta United. Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi have league debutantes LAFC in the playoff places. Nemanja Nikolic continues to score for Chicago Fire. Those are but a few.

Russell is making himself right at home among the division’s elite. An MLS MVP award may be in his future if he continues to impress. With players like Medranda and Graham Zusi providing support, why wouldn’t he?

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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