116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Soccer took Drew Russell halfway around the world and back.
The Mount Vernon native chose an unorthodox professional soccer path by leaving home a decade ago at age 16 and pursuing his athletic dreams in Europe.
Now, Russell is back in Eastern Iowa with the Cedar Rapids Rampage United, armed with a host of experiences from three countries and all four corners of the U.S.
'The experiences that I have had have been amazing and the funny part is, they led me right back here,' said Russell, 26, who will try to help Cedar Rapids (9-1) win a Premier League of America championship tournament semifinal against Carpathia FC (6-4) Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Glendale, Wis.
'For me, I'm always going to be a kid from Iowa, Mount Vernon. It was fun experiencing all that, but there is no place like home. I've been away from my family for so long and then just being able to be back has been awesome.'
After his family relocated from Texas to Mount Vernon when he was 5 years old, Russell quickly entrenched himself in the Cedar Rapids youth and club soccer scenes. Three years of recreation soccer morphed into a significant club stint with outfits like Heartland Soccer Club, Cedar River Soccer Association and Iowa Soccer Club.
'My parents knew I was passionate about it and got me into club soccer,' Russell said. 'People were calling me the 'club hopper' because I was all over the place, trying to get the best coaches and the best coaching. It was a lot of fun.'
Russell had completed two years of prep soccer with Mount Vernon when a unique opportunity arose.
A business associate of his father, Brad, talked up his own son's experience with 1860 Munich's youth developmental soccer academy in Germany. A video of Russell was compiled, sent overseas and Russell received the coveted invitation.
'My parents were all about, 'This is the one life you've got,'' Russell said. 'If you're passionate like the way I was passionate, I was, literally, every day outside playing with a soccer ball. They could tell that I was in it and they did not want to hold me back at all. So they were, 'Yeah, just go and try it out and if it doesn't work out you could always move back, but we don't want you living with what-ifs. We want you going for it.''
Russell was able to continue high-school studies both online and via Skype homeschool sessions with his mother, Amy. The academy had its own grounds, which allowed Russell to live among other kids in a dormitory environment, complete with a nanny and tutors.
Despite the invigorating challenge of the elite soccer training, the language barrier and isolation left him looking for other options.
'I got homesick real quick,' Russell said. 'Also, over there it was just a different level. It was tough for me because I'd go to training and I would do my work and then after that, I was just there by myself. Not a lot of kids spoke English. You're the new guy and you're fighting for a spot out there, so no one is really trying to be your friend or really get to know you and it's hard to get to know you if you don't talk to them.'
After a few months, Russell was intrigued when a Canadian youth development program came to Germany to train with 1860 Munich. Still a high school sophomore, Russell transferred to the Vancouver (British Columbia) Whitecaps FC Residency Program – one of the top residency programs in North America – which afforded him top-flight training in an English-speaking environment.
Russell signed for two years and lived with a Vancouver host family.
'That was probably my favorite experience,' Russell said. 'Just being on my own, getting paid to play, just experiencing being a pro early on.'
Russell completed his high-school coursework and received his diploma from Mount Vernon High School while playing for the top-ranked Crossfire Premier Soccer Club in Seattle, Wash.
Colleges such as UCLA and California-Santa Barbara came calling, but the NCAA ruled Russell ineligible due to his pro status. While his father petitioned the NCAA, UCSB directed Russell to Yavapai Community College in Prescott, Ariz., for the 2009 season. Once the NCAA held firm, he elected to resume his pro career over other options like NAIA-level soccer.
Russell trained with the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer, then received a two-year invitation to train and play with the reserve unit of another MLS franchise, the Chicago Fire.
When a first-team contract did not materialize, Russell just wanted to 'play somewhere nice,' and played two seasons in the Premier Development League in Panama City, Fla., from 2012-13.
'Loved it there,' Russell said. 'Loved the people, loved the lifestyle. The first year, it was all fun and games and then the second year I was like, 'I want to play pro.''
Russell spent the next two years with United Soccer League teams in Charlotte, N.C., and Pittsburgh, Pa., before a meniscus tear in his left knee temporarily shelved his game.
Russell entertained offers in Los Angeles and Reno, Nev., but fate returned him to Eastern Iowa when Bill Ajram, executive director of the Cedar Rapids youth soccer club FC United, offered Russell a coaching position. Having assisted youth academies in Chicago and Pittsburgh, Russell was excited about the opportunity to mentor players at the U11, U12 and U15 levels.
'It's something I'm very passionate about and I love giving back because I'm just passionate about soccer,' Russell said.
It did not take long for the Rampage United to learn of Russell's return to Cedar Rapids and begin to inquire about his possible interest in joining the hometown franchise.
'I had heard about the indoor team and I thought it was just great for the city,' Russell said. 'When I got back the plan for me was just to relax for a year. They found me out.'
The knee recovery and coaching commitments left Russell with a reduced fitness level and limited availability to the Rampage United. Russell has appeared in just five matches this season, and typically sits out the first half. Still, he is tied for third on the club with three goals this season from his right back position.
'He brings a lot of experience to the team,' Rampage United Coach Hewerton Moreira said. 'The way he plays, and how he likes to play, really helps the team with the ball possession and with finding space between lines to keep the ball. Also, the way how he brings physicality to the game defensively helps us a lot not only with the ball on the ground but in the air as well.'
With a win Saturday, the Rampage United would meet the winner of Milwaukee (9-1) and RWB Adria (7-2-1) Sunday for the league title, also at Glendale, Wis.
'It's been good,' Russell added. 'I've never been this unfit in my life, (but) at times my body also has never felt this great. It has been a blessing for sure, but it's also been fun to play with these guys.'
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