TORONTO - Darel Russell started the season as a virtual walk-on at Toronto FC's training camp.
The 33-year-old English midfielder went on to earn a contract and turn heads with highlight-reel goals.
Russell saw action in 18 games, including 10 starts, but missed the last two with a thigh muscle strain. He had started four of the six games before that.
Manager Ryan Nelsen has appreciated his character, experience and versatility.
"Before he got injured, his last two or three games, he was arguably our best player," said Nelsen.
Russell scored three goals, two of which were goal-of-the-week nominees. Not a bad return on investment considering Toronto (6-17-11) scored just 30 goal in 34 games.
He opened his TFC account in spectacular fashion April 6 in just his second start, securing a 2-2 comeback tie with FC Dallas with a 90th-minute long-range rocket. Russell deftly controlled a pass from the left flank with his foot and then hammered it home.
The timely goal, Toronto's second in six minutes, was so good that fullback Richard Eckersley injured a hamstring celebrating it.
Russell's most recent goal, against D.C. United on Sept. 28, was just as impressive. He controlled a deflected chip on his chest just outside the six-yard box and then turned, swinging his right leg to bang the ball in.
It was a technically beautiful, stylish goal.
The Brit turned his back and pointed to the name on the back of his jersey to punctuate his goal celebration,
(His other goal wasn't half-bad either, a confident right-footed shot on the edge of the box on Sept. 21 against Sporting Kansas City).
Russell says he has always had a flair for the dramatic in scoring, with his goal-to-game ratio improving over the years.
He just wishes he had more been on the field more to show it this season. Injuries and the presence of Matias Laba, Jonathan Osorio and Jeremy Hall limited his play.
And, as Nelsen notes, it takes time to adjust to MLS.
Russell, however, says he has already established one thing.
"I know that I can score in the MLS, I know I've got the ability to do that," he said.
Russell spent six seasons with Norwich City before joining Stoke City in 2003. He returned to Norwich in 2007, signed on with Preston North End in 2010 and had stints with Charlton Athletic and Portsmouth.
His preferred position is central midfield but he has also played as a forward and defender.
About two years ago, he began planning to play in North America.
Having previously spent time vacationing in North America, he liked the lifestyle. He already has a home in Las Vegas and expects to spend more time in North America in the future
"I wanted to experience a different culture and a different way of football," he said, "And hopefully that would aid me in my learning experience. And the short time that I've been here so far has been fantastic in terms of that learning experience."
He chose Portsmouth, a team that has experienced financial issues, as his last club in England because he could sign a month-to-month contract that would give him the flexibility to leave in time for the MLS season.
His decision was made all the easier because he was single — and mobile.
An East London native — and Spurs fan — Russell knew TFC assistant coach Jim Brennan from his time at Norwich.
Russell was in Florida during pre-season this year, looking at possibly joining a North American club.
"People knew about me, but they wanted to see me play. Which was fine," he said. "I wanted to come out here so I was happy to gamble on myself and show them what I could do.
"I could have stayed in England and quite comfortably played."
He ran into Brennan during a Toronto pre-season game against Orlando City — Russell knew the Orlando club's owner and asked if he could train with them — and was invited to the TFC camp.
"Lucky for me," said Russell.
He thought it would last just two days, but it led to a contract.
Russell should know soon whether he will be back. With the season over, Toronto is holding meetings with its players to discuss the future.