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Sporting KC’s Johnny Russell discusses MLS’s recent rise

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Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell has praised the growth of Major League Soccer following his 100th regular-season appearance.

The Scotland international took to the pitch for the 117th time overall since joining SKC from Derby County in 2018, scoring his 32nd goal for the club inside six minutes to seal a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire.

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There has been a big shift in approach from MLS in recent years, with the league more of a breeding ground for young talent rather than a final destination for ageing global stars.

Russell has been a first-hand witness to that, with the likes of Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies leaving MLS since his arrival, going on to become key pieces in some of Europe’s biggest sides. More recently, Russell’s former teammate Gianluca Busio has broken into Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT set-up while sealing a $6m move to Serie A newcomers, Venezia.

Reflecting on his time in MLS so far, Russell praised the growth of the league, admitting the standard of play has been far better than he expected.

“Definitely exceeded expectations,” Russell responded when asked by reporters how MLS has stood up to his initial impressions.

“I spoke so much about it, I came here for a change, to get a little bit of a spark back in my game that I felt was missing. I just wasn’t enjoying myself playing. Coming here has given me that, I’ve had an amazing four years here and getting to 100 games – it’s a privilege to play that many games here.

“It definitely exceeded my expectations, you never quite know coming into a league that you don’t really know an awful lot – obviously I watched it, but until you actually come and play and test yourself in it – and even since I came in ’18, I feel like the league has grown in standard every year.

“This has probably been the best year, you look at the quality of players, the quality of teams throughout the league and it’s constantly growing. It’s exciting times to be a part of it.”

Russell’s view ties in well with that of Columbus Crew playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, who arrived from Tigres in regional rival league Liga MX almost two years ago.

Since then, the Argentine has helped the Crew win MLS Cup, while sealing the MLS Newcomer of the Year award in 2020 and earning a place on the MLS All-Star team earlier this year. Having experienced both, Zelarayan believes the gap between MLS and Liga MX has been closed.

“There is not much difference between the leagues anymore,” Zelarayan said (via MLSsoccer.com) ahead of the All-Star game against a Liga MX All-Star side.

“In recent years, it has been shown that both countries have grown a lot. Matches between the national teams or teams from both leagues have been tight; that means that the leagues are at a similar level. MLS has caught up.”

The improvement is there for the likes of Russell and Zelarayan to see. Next on the agenda is surely for an MLS side to win the Concacaf Champions League for the first time, ending Liga MX’s stranglehold on the tournament.

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