Ten Questions with Ian Russell

In this edition of "10 Questions," Frank MacDonald talks with Ian Russell.

West Seattle native Ian Russell was one of three former Sounders who graduated to MLS and helped form the nucleus of two championship teams in San Jose from 2001-03. The former University of Washington standout played a total of six seasons in the league before retiring. Now he’s returned to the Bay Area as an assistant on Frank Yallop’s staff. With the Earthquakes’ debut just days away, we caught up with Russell and asked about what it’s like to build a squad from the ground up.

What’s the atmosphere around the San Jose team operation been like since you joined in November?
After the expansion draft, where we got our core group of players, we had to go get some players. We don’t want a lot of inexperienced players in an expansion team so we’ve bought some players or made some trades. We only have 14 players signed, but we don’t want to make the same mistakes of other teams, and keep redoing the roster every 3-4 weeks. The players we get are going to stay with us.

How does the Earthquakes’ philosophy compare with that of recent expansion teams?
We’re different from Salt Lake because they went and got some younger players. We’re going for more experienced that have played in the league and had success in the league. I think Chivas struggled their first year because they underestimated the MLS a little bit. They came in with foreign players who didn’t make it in Mexico. It was disaster for them. MLS is not the most technical league. It’s fast , physical and if you don’t have some athletes on your team you’re going to struggle. You have both technical and physical players in this league.

When you see Seattle getting 16 months and Philadelphia more than two years to prepare for a first season, is it easy to be envious?
I know our owner was talking to our GM, John Doyle, about this, and John wants to go for it. Obviously an extra year might help a little bit, but everybody’s happy that we’re going this year. We’re happy with our team. There are kinks we need to work out. There’s a lot of background stuff to work out logistically, like practice fields, but we’ve sorted it out. On the field everything’s been great. We’re playing well and we just won the Carolina Cup.

Frank Yallop seems to be a real players’ coach. Since you prospered under him and have now joined his staff, what are the qualities you see in him which set him apart?
You said it, he really is a player’s coach. Guys want to play for him. He’s constantly talking to you and is not going to run you into the ground. He wants guys who are going to be ready to play on Saturday night, not leg weary or tired. He’s a very nice guy but when things aren’t going right, he’ll lay into you. You ask anybody in the league about Frank, and they’ll say he’s a player’s coach to the fullest. Guys want to play for him.

MLS has changed dramatically since you were drafted. What remains the same?
Most of the teams are still made of core American players, which is good. They develop the college players. Now there are more foreign players, and the Designated Player has given the league some worldwide notoriety. The level of play has gotten better, and the American players, they work hard and lay it all out there.

What is the mood of the team?
Expectations are low because we are expansion team, but if you look at our roster, it’s a team which will surprise some people. We’ve had five preseason games against MLS teams and only allowed 2-3 goals. Obviously it’s preseason but we’re not giving up goals, which is a key. But we’re not scoring many either, so we need to address that.

You know the San Jose community, having played there. By coming back as a coach, you must believe this will prove to be a successful second go-round?
Our owners also manage the Oakland A’s, so they’re familiar with sports in the Bay Area, and they’re going to build us our own stadium. We basically had to rent out Spartan Stadium when I played there, and that cost a lot of money. This owner sees where the sport is going and is willing to spend money and do it the right way. San Jose will no longer be the team that’s rumored to be moving. We’re here for the long run.

In another year you and the Quakes will be playing in Seattle. Given that they will only be separated by a year and a 2-hour flight, does this have the makings of a rivalry?
We’re rivals with the Galaxy. Seattle will be a pretty good one, but I think the best rivalry in MLS since it started was San Jose and the Galaxy. There’s a lot of passion. Until either Vancouver or Portland join to create a Northwest rivalry, because San Jose is the closest city to Seattle there will be a rivalry. But I’d like to see at least one other Northwest city get a team to go with Seattle. That would be great for all of us on the West Coast.

Since opening training nearly two months ago, what’s it been like in terms of evaluating players?
For us it’s been difficult because we have to look at a lot of players. The old teams, like when I was with San Jose and we were successful and winning championships, we were only looking for 1-2 players for a certain position. For this team, we’re looking for every position, either to start or add depth, so we’ve brought in tons of players. We give them a chance, but we want the right players. With 14 players, we’re not saying we just need to sign four more guys. We’d rather go into the season with 15 players than have three guys that won’t contribute, and we have guys in the reserve team. We want to make the right decisions.

Kansas City signed a designated player just about two weeks before opening day. What’s the mood when you know your coach is still shopping for talent, yet you know it might come at the cost of your playing time or position?
The league wants us to fill out the roster and we will in time. But in Europe they are still playing and have to wait until some players who are out of contract. We might get some guys in May that might be our marquee guys. It’s just tough for right now. The most important thing for Frank is that he wants a good locker room, guys that get along and play well together.