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Player feature: Robbie Russell

A long winding road to D.C.

Robbie Russell - 2012

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Getty Images

D.C. United defender Robbie Russell is no stranger to moving around. As a child, his father's international aid work took Russell from Ghana to Sri Lanka in-between multiple stops in the United States. What few parts of the world he hadn't seen in his youth, Russell visited during a professional soccer career that – in addition to Major League Soccer - has seen the 32-year-old play in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. But after a three and a half year stay with Real Salt Lake, where he won an MLS Cup in 2009, this past fall finally brought Russell the move he'd been seeking for the better part of the last decade.

It was a move, made for love.

When United pulled off a late-November trade to bring Russell to Washington, the Black-and-Red knew they were getting a veteran presence to help solidify the club’s young back line. What General Manager Dave Kasper also knew, was that Russell would be supremely motivated to make it work in the nation’s capital. After living apart from his wife Tiana – a D.C. based lawyer – for most of their relationship, Russell would at long last see everything come together.

“It always helps when a player really wants to come to your club,” Kasper said while discussing one of United’s most important offseason acquisitions. “All players want to be successful and earn a living, but when a guy really wants to be here for reasons that are off-the-field, it’s a perfect situation.”

Russell couldn’t agree more.

“My first thought was this is perfect, and everything has fallen into place,” the veteran defender said with his trademark smile. “My second thought was, I really need to make this work now.

Living apart for so many years, it was all because of things that just didn’t sync up. This was one of those rare moments where it all synced up. It makes it so that you value it that much more.”

Russell’s desire to succeed here in RFK has been clear through D.C.’s first few matches of 2012. While injuries, depth and call-ups have seen changes at nearly every other position in Ben Olsen’s starting eleven, Russell has been a rare constant. The first-choice right back is one of only two players to have played every minute entering tonight’s match, locking down the opponent’s left flank while providing a strong voice in front of D.C.’s young goalies.

It’s a voice that carries the weight of a soccer resume unmatched anywhere on United’s roster.

Though he’s never been capped by the U.S. National Team, Russell is one of just a handful of American players to have participated in UEFA Champions League. He reached soccer’s pinnacle while with Norwegian giants Rosenborg BK in 2004, going toe-to-toe with the some of the biggest names in the world. Russell’s personal highlight came in September of that year, when he entered a group-stage match against Arsenal with 16 minutes to play. Tied with the English giants, Rosenborg coach Ola By Rise tasked Russell with defending the likes of Thierry Henry, Robin Van Persie and Patrick Viera. Fresh from winning an EPL title the previous season, Arsenal were in top form.

But for that one quarter-hour, so were Russell and his teammates. The underdog Norwegians held on for a 1-1 draw, giving the Duke University product a memory he’ll never forget.

“Every time I hear that Champions League song I get chills,” Russell noted. “I think that will be with me forever. It’s an experience I’ve gone through that will stay with me. It’s so exciting and so satisfying to get any kind of success on that level. Every game was one hundred miles per hour. Full concentration, one hundred percent of the time.”

Russell’s European odyssey wasn’t without its difficulties. A year after playing in Champions League, the defender tore the meniscus in his right knee. After three surgeries in eight months, doctors told Russell he might never play again.

“It was the scariest thing in the world,” Russell recalled. “Everything falls apart. As an athlete, playing is such a part of your being. Losing that is scary.”

Russell acknowledges that the injury left him with some what-ifs to go along with the two-year gap in the prime of his career. But along with questions about what might have been, the episode provided Russell with a healthy perspective that he still brings to work every day.

“I’ve always tried to remember that every day I get to play I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” “Especially on those days when everything goes wrong, you are still doing something that everyone else would give their right arm to do.”

This article was originally posted in the April 7 issue of the Matchday Program