Rushing to help Scotland out against Mexico means that Johnny Russell will miss Sporting Kansas City’s fixture against Minnesota United this weekend.
It could have been against Manchester United and Russell would not have thought twice. He’s getting the opportunity to play at a sold-out Estadio Azteca for his country, after all.
It will make for an interesting contrast in experiences between his fourth and fifth caps. Russell last played for Scotland in 2015 against Gibraltar in Faro in a largely soulless stadium containing just over 12,000 people.
There have been few players so readily assured some game-time prior to an international match than the committed Russell, who caught up with his squad mates in Lima earlier this week. It took more than three clicks of his heels to transport him from Kansas to Mexico City, via Lima.
Having only arrived in the early hours of the morning on the day of the game, it was impossible for him to feature against Peru. But the former Dundee United player is almost certain to make his first start for Scotland against Mexico in the early hours of tomorrow morning.
He ticks plenty of boxes; he is a striker at a time when Scotland have a shortage of them, scores goals – though is still awaiting his first at international level – and has proved he is desperate to be involved. He’s used to heat, arriving in Peru not so fresh from playing for Sporting KC against Colombus Crew in 35 degrees.
On top of this, he’s more accustomed than his teammates to playing at high altitude. In just his fourth match for Sporting KC he was gasping for breath in Denver, in a league match against Colorado Rapids. He reveals even some of the Colorado players were still struggling to adapt after months at the club.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “And Mexico is a lot higher too. You just can’t catch a breath. It tires you quicker and you can’t get a breath and constantly feel you’re trying to push through that second wind and you can’t really get it. But it’s a challenge to look forward to, not just for me but for a lot of the boys who will really relish playing on this stage.”
Russell did everything he could to be at the Azteca. Unlike his squad mates, he is still very much in mid-season. Kansas City needed him for a game against Columbus Crew last weekend, hence why Russell was unavailable against Peru. Sporting KC manager, Peter Vermes, came to an accommodation with McLeish, who was permitted to have Russell’s services for one match.
“The two managers were trying to sort it out because I’m going to miss a game now I’m here,” the 28-year-old explained. “I spoke to the manager at Kansas and said, ‘Look, this is an opportunity I’ve not had in so long and I really don’t want to pull out the squad’.
“He was brilliant with me. He asked me to stay for the Columbus game and he would let me go to play against Mexico. I’m happy he let me go.
“It will be difficult with the altitude and the heat, something we’re not used to. But to get the chance to play in a stadium like that, with such history? It’s going to be amazing. That’s why you play football, to perform in games like this, especially for your country. You can’t ask for any more than that.”
Russell is relishing life in the Midwest. He is reaping the benefit of playing for a club based where it is, meaning travel, while still significant, is not as arduous as it might be (Sporting KC lie 14th in the distance table out of 23 teams, logging 34,359 miles in total this season).
“We’re fortunate to be so central so it has not been too bad. We haven’t travelled more than three hours on a flight,” he said. “In England, you’re on that every week on a bus, sometimes even more.
“The travel hasn’t really affected me yet, although it still might. I’ve played half a season at Derby and straight into a full season with Kansas so it might catch up with me eventually but at the moment I feel good.”
He stresses he left British football not for lifestyle reasons, but for football ones. And who can argue? Sporting KC are top of the Western conference, and Russell, who has scored three times in 13 appearances, is among good company.
He came up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic in April, out-shining the Swede by scoring in a 2-0 win at LA Galaxy.
“It was a great experience to face a player of his stature, and also to play against Ashley Cole in that game, too,” he said. “There are so many players from throughout the world in the MLS. It’s littered with talent. We played New York in our first game and I came up against David Villa, a player I’ve loved for years. Getting to play against people like that is a great experience.”