The Northern Lights Shine on Russell
The soccer world has been very good to Robbie Russell, though few people in the United States would know it. The Amherst, Mass., native was drafted by the Los Angeles Galaxy after graduating from Duke University in 2000, where he earned second team All-America honors as a senior. But, instead of moving to the west coast, Russell chose to broaden his horizons, and his soccer, with a life in the Norwegian First Division. After over two years at FC Sogndal, meet the newest member of the U.S. MNT pool in an exclusive interview as ussoccer.com goes "One-on-One" with Robbie Russell.
ussoccer.com: After deciding to stay in school for four years, you quickly made the decision to head to Europe. What was the thought process?
After college, I felt that since I hadn’t entered the professional soccer scene as young as some people that I needed to make the jump to Europe as quickly as possible to help speed my development as a soccer player. My agent happened to be from Norwegian-based company, which is how I wound up there. I’ve been there for two-and-a-half years now, and I love the country, the people, and the football."
ussoccer.com: What about Europe was so appealing from a soccer perspective?
"It’s the fact that I’ve never been to Europe. A lot of kids when they are younger get on European travel teams. My family never real had the money to send me on those trips. So the fact I never played there was a big thing for me. When I was growing up, we watched European soccer all the time, and you knew that’s where all the best players were playing, so that inspired me to want to travel and experience more of the soccer world."
ussoccer.com: Going from Duke to a small town in Norway must have been a real culture shock …
"I’m lucky that in Scandinavia they start teaching English in high school, so that made it easier. Still, it was a tough transition time for me, but I grew up in a family of non-English speaking people, so the difference in culture wasn’t as big a shock for me. I’m half Ghanaian and half American. My father had a diplomatic role in the government, so I was born in Ghana, then moved to the United States and other places. It influences you because you get used to learning about other cultures and experiencing things that a normal kid growing up only in America doesn’t experience."
ussoccer.com: Culture aside, talk about the transition from college soccer in the U.S. to professional soccer in Norway ...
"In college, the players are generally more athletic than they are football-minded. In Norway, they are all great athletes, and also they have soccer brains. Some players have different athletic attributes, but they all have that mental aspect that you don’t necessarily find in college. Once you step in Europe, everyone has an opinion and philosophy about how the game is supposed to be played. It makes for very interesting discussions with other players about tactics and teamwork. The biggest difference I noticed was the amount of thought put into playing the game."
ussoccer.com: Tactically speaking, how would you describe Norwegian football?
"The Norwegian coaches like to play a lot of 4-3-3. They like the games to be very efficient defensively very organized, and they like to win the ball and play forward quickly. Their style of play is very direct, looking to play long balls in behind the defense, and getting the ball wide and serving crosses in early. The Norwegians are great attackers of the goal, they finish in the air very well, and they’re all very large."
ussoccer.com: Organized defense, quick counter-attacks … It sounds a lot like the characteristics of a Bruce-Arena led national team …
"Hopefully that’s going to help me get onto the squad. It seems I play a style that he wants to use. Whatever will give me a little edge, I’ll take it."
ussoccer.com: Having spent the last three years in Europe, what has it been like following the progress of the U.S. MNT?
"It’s been very exciting. I’ve done a lot of trash talking to my counterparts, especially during the last World Cup when they didn’t even qualify. Norway has been having a lot of trouble lately with European qualifying, so it helps to come from a country that’s ranked a little higher in FIFA."
ussoccer.com: Can you give us an overall picture of the Norwegian First Division?
"Rosenborg is the best team in Scandinavia. They’re constantly in the Champions League, and they finish in first or second in the league every year. After that, it’s up in the air. Last season, the league ended with four or five teams within one or two points of each other. I come from one of the smaller clubs, but we generally do better than we’re expected to. There are 14 teams in the league, but I’d say five or six of them are really consistently very good teams."
ussoccer.com: You’ve described FC Sogndal as a very small club, but also very special …
"My club is very unique. It’s one of the smallest clubs in Europe, so it’s a surprise that we stay in the top league every year. I think the success stems from the fact that even though it’s a small town - with a population of 4-5 thousand - they draw their players from a very large area. It’s the only top-flight team within several counties, so that’s where most of the talent comes from. The small town atmosphere is great because the fans are so fanatic. There is only a handful of them, but they love it. They come with us to every game and follow us wherever we go. You play in a small 5,000 seat stadium, but when you have a thousand people going insane, it sounds great."
ussoccer.com: At the risk of sounding quaint, tell us about life in a tiny town in Norway …
"I have seen the Northern Lights, which are amazing to watch. Norwegian people are very jovial, very fun-loving people. They are very outdoor-oriented, active and very healthy. Every image I have of the "Norwegian Warrior" definitely applies. They are constantly outside working and doing the things that Americans generally don’t do. One thing I found strange is they love the Biathlon [which combines skiing and target shooting] because they win the championships every year."
ussoccer.com: What are the future football ambitions for Robbie Russell?
"I would like to be signed to a larger club in Europe, perhaps somewhere more southern. That’s all I can hope for. I have two years left on my contract, with an option to come back to the U.S. for free after one year."
ussoccer.com: Would you consider coming back to the States and playing for the Galaxy?
Of course. The Galaxy is a great organization, and L.A. is a great city. The weather is certainly better than Norway! With the stadium and the facilities, you can’t ask for a better situation. Sometimes it
gets to a point where you feel like you’re not moving forward football-wise, and you have to make a change. If that time comes, I’ll have to make a decision then."
ussoccer.com: You haven’t had a chance to compare yourself to American players in a long time, and here you are in your first national team camp. How would you rate your performance?
"I think I’m doing pretty well. I don’t like to make judgments about how I’m playing, because you never really know what the coach is thinking, so I don’t worry about what I can’t control. I think the most important thing now is to get along well with the guys, and that part has gone extremely well."