Monson: Bearded man of the world leads RSL
The beard is coming off.
That's what will happen if Real Salt Lake wins the CONCACAF Champions League final on Wednesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium. If RSL advances past Monterrey to the FIFA Club World Cup, if Major League Soccer history is made, the club's unofficial Chia Pet-like symbol of good footie vibes Robbie Russell's substantial facial shrub will be history, too.
"In the offseason, it started out that I just wanted to know what a beard on me looked like," Russell says. "Then we won some games, and it turned into a playoff beard. I couldn't shave it. If we win, it's coming off for charity."
And Russell, who looks like a cross between Uncle Phil and Kimbo Slice, sees no reason not to start firing up the razor now.
"Everything is in our hands," he says. "We're playing in our stadium in front of our fans. It's a chance to win a championship. There's nothing I can think of that would stop us from winning that championship."
The way RSL came back twice against Monterrey in the first leg of the two-game set in Mexico last week to garner a 2-2 draw revealed to Russell a powerful notion: "This team is good enough to play with anybody. You're not always going to be the best team on the field, but you can get the job done. We know how to play good soccer. We also know, sometimes, it's got to get ugly."
The beard is proof enough.
But Russell is more than a bushy good-luck charm.
He is part of the basic frame upon which RSL's success is hung. There are better players on the club, better defenders, but his willingness to buy into Jason Kreis' one-for-all philosophy, a quaint concept that, in some realms, would be a laughable kind of fool's paradise, is a significant aspect of his overall bestowal.
"There are roles for everybody on this team," Russell says. "Everyone wants to contribute. As a defender, you do the dirty job so somebody else can take the credit. I feel like my contributions are behind the scenes. I care about the guys on this team. I want to see them succeed."
He adds: "Some of the guys call me 'Dad.' "
Andy Williams is the only RSL player older than Russell. And none is smarter or more traveled. By that measure, the beard should be longer and grayer.
Russell has lived on four continents. He scored a near-perfect 1590 on his SAT before enrolling at Duke, despite the distraction of soccer and the fact that he wasn't a particularly great student. He describes himself as a "nerd," and reads books such as Stranger in a Strange Land, Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities just for kicks. He looks forward to going to medical school after his playing days are done. He has lived in a country ripped apart by civil war, and his mom was once peppered by shrapnel from a massive bomb that exploded a short distance away in an assassination attempt on a government minister.
Here's a quick chronology:
Russell was born in Ghana and moved back and forth to the United States during his formative years. When he was 9, he moved with his family to war-torn Sri Lanka, where his father, who was an aid administrator, negotiated with warlords and government officials to get truckloads of food through to refugees. Acts of terror were all around. His mom was walking toward his father's office when the aforementioned bomb exploded.
He was too young to fully process the violence surrounding him, but he clearly remembers as a boy being detained by armed men in his car at a roadblock and wondering what was going on.
"[The threat] was always a presence," he says.
A respite from that presence was the beautiful game.
Russell took up soccer as a kid in the United States because his older brothers played it. He followed in line.
"It's always been a part of my life," he says.
When he moved back to the United States, to Amherst, Mass., for high school, soccer became a major thrust. He traveled an hour and a half to play on a club team in Boston and was named a prep All-American on his way to Duke.
Thereafter, he went to Norway and Denmark to play professionally for seven years. While on a top first-division Norwegian club, Rosenborg BK, Russell competed against Arsenal, Panathinaikos, and PSV Eindhoven in UEFA Champions League matches.
"Playing against teams I idolized growing up was the highlight of my career," he says. "There were nerves, adrenaline and the kind of pressure you'd never known before, playing against the best players in the world."
Through the back half of his time in Europe, after Russell suffered a knee injury that required three surgeries and nearly ended his career, the defender was contacted by Kreis to gauge his interest in playing for RSL. He signed and arrived in July 2008.
Since that time, Russell has been a steady contributor, helping the club make the playoffs in 2008 and win the MLS championship in 2009. Russell was the one who scored the game-winner against the L.A. Galaxy, giving RSL the title, 5-4, on penalty kicks.
"That was indescribable," he says. "Everything in that moment was right. You're on top of the world. It was awesome. Something special."
Now, the beard on the mug of the man who's been around the world and played against the best, and grown older and wiser turns and faces the razor's edge on Wednesday night at Rio Tinto.
"This is a moment to enjoy, a moment to relish," he says. "If you can't enjoy these moments, you're missing out. It's great stuff, putting yourself out on the line, finding out how you match up. It's just excitement. There's nothing better."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 104.7 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He's at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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