‘Johnny’s crazy.’ How Sporting KC’s captain set an example not lost on his teammates

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Sporting Kansas City captain Johnny Russell limped through the locker room late Wednesday, a pack of ice wrapped around his leg and then tucked behind his knee.

Over the previous couple of days, more than one person had suggested he might want to just sit this one out. Who would blame him? A leg injury had required extra hours of treatment, prevented his full inclusion in training and, at times, prompted more than a bit of pain.

But Russell thought back to four days earlier.

Inside another locker room — this one the visitor’s space in Portland after a humiliating 7-2 loss that included six second-half goals — Russell had basically let his teammates have it, both behind closed doors and in a Zoom call with media. He questioned their effort. Questioned their desire. Questioned whether they had deserved to be wearing a Sporting jersey that night.

“All we do,” he recalls saying in that locker room, “is talk, talk, talk, talk.”

If you’re going to issue the message, you sure as heck had better back it up yourself — on the field.

Sporting KC bounced back from its public embarrassment with a 2-1 win Wednesday against visiting Colorado. Daniel Salloi had a brace, his first goal the result of a brilliant individual effort; goalkeeper Tim Melia kept a couple of enticing shots out of the net late; and Sporting won for just the third time in 13 matches this season.

But all that came only after Russell supplied a much-needed statement.

First the talk.

Then the action.

Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes called it a “stretch” for Russell to play Wednesday. He had been banged up in the Portland match, and he was already playing less than 100% before that one even began.

But Russell was insistent all week. He refused to consider taking the night off. “A duty to my teammates,” he would term it.

“Johnny’s crazy,” Salloi said. “I don’t know how he’s doing it. He pushes the rest of us. Whatever you’re starting to feel, you think twice before you sit out when you see that guy playing through anything.

“I think he’s stupid sometimes, playing through what he plays through. But I’m very happy he’s the one leading us.”

Within a handful of minutes Wednesday against the Rapids, a grimace overtook Russell’s expression as he was sprinting to collect a pass. Just after the initial quarter-hour, he was a step late and remained on the ground for a couple of extra moments before regaining himself.

Later, he took a ball to the, um, midsection. Then a cleat to the shin. On it went.

Yet there he was, more than 90 minutes into the match, out-pacing a pair of Colorado players to a loose ball, securing possession and drawing a foul and an accompanying yellow card, to boot.

Icing a win.

“He’s a warrior,” Vermes said, adding, “Character is defined in difficult moments, and he’s a guy who doesn’t shy away form adverse situations. It’s easy to be a captain when everything’s going well. It’s the difficult moments where you have got to step up and be a leader.”

Will Sporting follow?

It’s one game. One win. One chance to exhale four days after so much had gone wrong.

It’s up to Sporting to make it longer-lasting. To turn this into a trend rather than a brief interruption to a sour season. There are opportunities in every season to make big steps from small moments. Sporting has one here. It’s becoming too late to waste it.

This is not a team that can win on pure talent. Two of the most talented players on the roster will not set foot on the field once this season. To make a charge up the Western Conference standings, even a gradual one, Sporting KC will have to grind out wins. They’ll have to be willing to grind out wins.

Their captain just proved how.

“It’s his character that he doesn’t want to give up,” Melia said. “It’s something that we need and respect. So, yeah, that should resonate throughout the entire team.”

In Portland, the tongue-lashing was direct, but it also had a broader meaning. Underneath its primary purpose, it was Russell’s way of saying, hey, guys, this season isn’t over yet.

No, time isn’t running out, but it is running thin. Sporting sits in 13th place in a 14-team Western Conference that invites half its members to the postseason.

The structure of Major League Soccer, however, certainly allows teams plenty of chances to make up ground. While Sporting has played a match or two more than its counterparts, after Wednesday’s victory it is actually just three points shy of the seventh and final playoff spot. That’s the equivalent of one win.

They haven’t offered much reason for optimism that they can string a few of those together. The victory Wednesday is a promising start, though that’s all for now.

“Any athlete will tell you, when you get embarrassed like that (in Portland), that hurts. Those games are embarrassing, humbling, all different types of words to describe it,” Melia said. “But ultimately I hope that it was a wake-up call.”

Maybe so.

But if so, the real wake-up call was provided not only by the result but by the captain’s response to it.

Good enough for one night. Good enough for more?

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