When the 2011 MLS season ended for DC United without a playoff berth, anyone that saw the team play would have been able to tell you the first thing the club needed: A stronger, deeper defense. Only a couple of spots lower on Ben Olsen's "To Do" list would have been something about finding a couple veteran players with experience at the top of the game and a proven winner's mentality.
Benny can place a check next to those categories today, as DC United has officially acquired defender Robbie Russell from Real Salt Lake. In exchange, United gave up a 2013 3rd round draft pick (under the upcoming draft's rules, that would be a 1st round pick in the Supplemental Draft, but the difference between "3rd round SuperDraft" and "1st round Supplemental" is merely an issue of semantics). Russell, a right back capable of playing anywhere in a back four as well as defensive midfield, is likely best known in MLS for converting the winning penalty kick for RSL in the 2009 MLS Cup final.
Russell would have been available in the upcoming Re-Entry Draft, but United probably did the right thing in making a trade today rather than risk a player that fit the bill. Few around the league were likely surprised to hear yesterday's rumor that United was pursuing Russell; once the news of the club's interest officially broke, DC had to make a move. RSL GM Garth Lagerwey had already admitted that the salary cap was going to be an issue for his side, so the move probably works for them as well (in terms of getting something instead of nothing, anyway).
Unfamiliar with Russell? We'll discuss him beyond the jump.The newest member of the Black-and-Red should have little trouble claiming the right back spot - a big question mark for United once Perry Kitchen was moved to defensive midfield - as his own. His positional sense, competitive edge, and general soccer IQ are all significant upgrades over our potential right backs before the trade. An added bonus is that Russell is among the better right backs in MLS despite joining the RSL attack fairly regularly. He may not be Cafu or Dani Alves in terms of skill on the ball, but Russell knows how to overlap at the right times in an effort to throw defenses off. His crossing is not exactly pinpoint, but by MLS outside back standards it's pretty good.
However, we should not be surprised to see Russell log minutes elsewhere during the course of the season. He has been used as a center back by Jason Kreis on occasion; before the emergence of Chris Schuler, Russell was probably the 3rd best center back on RSL's roster. Using him there won't be like using Daniel Woolard or Devon McTavish at center back; unlike those two, Russell has the height (6'2") and strength to play that role without risking a physical mismatch. Russell has also seen time at left back and defensive midfield, but it seems unlikely that he'll have to play those positions for United.
Russell's career before his success with RSL points to a player who didn't just stumble into the right MLS club at the right time. Drafted by the Galaxy in 2001, Russell turned down the deal offered there to play for Icelandic club Breiðablik. After just one season, he made the step up to the Norwegian league with Sogndal, where he played 116 matches over 3 seasons. Russell impressed enough to be signed by Rosenborg, by far the most successful club in Norway (they've won 17 of the last 22 Norwegian league titles), where he won the league in 2004 and also played in the UEFA Champions League. Following an injury and coaching change, Russell moved on to Viborg in Denmark's top league before arriving in MLS.
Russell's success abroad (not to mention the difficult path he chose; the Icelandic league is not exactly known as a platform for launching a career in the big time), his league championships, and the glowing reviews he's getting from RSL and their fans are important. When a player has that kind of history, it means he should be good in the locker room. United could use a little bit more in terms of leadership and maturity, and Russell should provide those by giving our young players an excellent example to follow. Just as vital, Russell is a winner and has the rings to prove it; that kind of mentality is something United sorely needed down the stretch.
The one negative thing people might have to say about this move is that Russell is 32 years old. However, based on very recent evidence, I'd call him a young 32. This is not a player on his last legs. Russell has a reputation as a player that takes care of himself away from the practice field, and that means a lot at this stage of a player's career. He's also had the benefit of RSL's rotation policy at outside back. While he and Chris Wingert were the first-choice players, Tony Beltran also logged a ton of minutes on both flanks, keeping all three players fresh despite RSL's demanding schedule over the past two seasons.
If you couldn't tell already, I really like this move. DC gave up little - ignore the "we waste all our draft picks" crowd who forget that we've got more home runs than strike outs on draft day in the past few years - and took care of arguably the biggest hole in our starting eleven for next season. Russell also brings the right intangibles to the table, while also adding a dimension to our attack that we often simply went without in 2011. In a salary cap league, good players become available from time to time; being the team picking those guys up is just good business. Russell helps us in a wide variety of ways, and comes with little to no downside.
In other words, we've already started the 2012 season on the right foot.