Peter Vermes has said that he is aware of the number of minutes Johnny Russell is playing and that he will have to manage the Sporting KC winger carefully. However, in this scenario, there is only one way to manage him: Play him for all he is worth.
For Sporting Kansas City, it is now very much all on the line. The MLS Playoffs are a regular venture for Peter Vermes’ side. But rarely are they a happy one. Prior to this season, they had not won a playoff game since they won the MLS Cup in 2013.
And now they have a chance to return to the MLS Cup and win the trophy has repeatedly evaded Vermes since his last victory, despite consistent excellence in the regular season and U.S. Open Cup.
Sporting KC face the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference Championship, the first leg taking place on Sunday. And Vermes has a rather difficult selection decision to make regarding arguably his best player, Johnny Russell.
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Russell was called up to the Scotland national squad again during the November break. He is a short, tackle-inducing winger who takes a lot of knocks and, per Vermes, requires special management. Indeed, Vermes reiterated his concern regarding Russell, speaking to reporters this week:
"“I’ve been concerned in regards to Johnny for a long time, and he knows that.” Vermes told reporters on Wednesday. I’ve told him that the biggest thing is I have to figure out a way how to manage him over the course of our season <…> He’s a warrior, he really is. He’s a tough guy, physically and also mentally. Many times he says, ‘look, I’m fine, I’m good, I can play.’ He wants to play, and I appreciate that. But I also have to do what I think is right over the long term.”"
The key is always the context. In any decision that is taken, it is crucial that the context is considered. Even killing can be justified in the right context. And for Vermes and Sporting KC, it is critical that he considers the context in which he is umming and ahhing over how to utilise Russell during the final few matches of the postseason.
In the context of needing to win now, to end the four-year playoff hoodoo, to deliver on the promise of a tremendous regular season that saw KC secure the number one seed in the West, there is only one way to manage Russell and his ankle-breaking dribbling: play him for all he is worth.
There is no second chance in the playoffs. There is no need to delay, to save, to rest, to focus on the long-term. Each and every team in the playoffs is in ‘win now’ mode, including KC. That means playing your best players for as long as they can play for, and Russell is unquestionably one of Vermes’ best players — 10 goals and 10 assists in the regular season are proof enough of that.
In the normal rhythms of the season, yes, there is cause to rest a player like Russell for a series of matches. But in the playoffs, the context has changed. And the context dictates that Russell must play. Vermes needs him more than ever.