Robbie and Tiana Russell will be apart for most of the next five weeks — Robbie at D.C. United’s warm-weather training camps to prime for his first season with the MLS club and Tiana commuting from their Arlington apartment to her downtown law office.
Distance tends to strain relationships, but for the Russells, separated by 2,000 miles for a large swath of their four-year marriage and a wider gap for much of their dozen years together, five weeks will feel like five minutes.
United’s acquisition of Russell from Real Salt Lake in November filled a void on the back line. It also filled a void in his heart. For the first time, he and Tiana are embracing careers in the same city and enjoying the rhythms and routines of married life.
“It was a huge sense of relief,” Tiana said of the trade that brought her husband to Washington. “We got better at [being apart], but it’s definitely hard. There’s a lot of anxiety that goes with it.”
After 31 / 2 seasons in Utah, where he won an MLS title in 2009 and fell a victory shy of a Club World Cup berth last year, Robbie longed for a trade to United to reunite with Tiana, who had settled here in 2009.
A deal seemed to make perfect sense: His contract was up; Real Salt Lake was in a payroll jam, with younger players ready to step in; and United was hunting for an experienced right back.
Robbie and Tiana crossed their fingers.
“When the trade went through, I called my mom,” said Russell, 32. “She was screaming through the phone, she was so excited I’d be living with my wife again. It was a quick transition: I’m packing up and then showing up on my wife’s doorstep with all of my stuff.”
While it’s not unusual for military spouses to live apart, it is unique in sports circles. Soccer players’ wives follow an unpredictable path, accompanying their partners to Dallas or Denmark. In the Russells’ case, Tiana’s ambitions, coupled with untimely circumstances and a rough job market in Salt Lake City, pushed them apart for long periods.
Upon graduating from Duke together in 2001, Robbie launched his career with the Norwegian club Sogndal while Tiana spent time with extended family in India and volunteered with an after-school program for children living in Mumbai’s slums. She joined him for a summer in Norway and, while enrolled at New York University’s law school, visited when her schedule allowed.
Tiana accepted an offer from Arnold & Porter, one of Washington’s biggest firms. Robbie moved to Norway’s biggest club, Rosenborg, where he won a league title and played in the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s ultimate competition.
A knee injury sidelined him for a year and a half, dropping him out of favor and leading to a transfer to Viborg in Denmark. Tiring of the long-distance relationship, Tiana quit her job and joined him.
In 2006, he proposed. A year later, during Viborg’s winter break, they were married in Puerto Rico. Back in Denmark, she taught at Aarhus University law school and worked as a consultant for a Danish law firm.
Their future, though, was in the United States. He signed with Real Salt Lake in July 2008, but she stayed behind to see out work commitments. Later that year, they reunited in Utah. “It was a perfect situation,” he said. “All that was left was a job for my wife. With her credentials, we didn’t think it would be a problem.”
The economy made it a problem, and without any connections in their new community, months of searching came up dry. She did pro bono work but reached the conclusion that “I needed to start working before I lost the chance.”
While continuing to pursue opportunities in Salt Lake City, in January 2010 she returned to Arnold & Porter, which had offered to take her back.
They adjusted again. Robbie spent the offseason in Washington. Tiana attended RSL matches on the East Coast and scheduled vacations to visit him.
In Arlington, when she didn’t have TV access to an RSL match, she would stroll to Summers Restaurant, the area’s venerable soccer haunt, and watch the satellite feed.
Russell, a muscle-packed back with speed and smarts, started most of the club’s matches in 2010. Both were excelling in their careers but, Tiana said, “we were tired of being apart.”
The arrangement was taking a toll.
“Whenever you have a relationship that has distance, all the problems you have are magnified,” Robbie said. “If you have problems that would lead to a breakup, the distance will bring that out. It makes it 10 times harder when you are apart.
“You might call when you’re happy and she had a terrible day. You would have to make an effort to tell each other what was happening because you weren’t there to see it yourself. All those things you take for granted in a close relationship, the other person doesn’t know it when you’re a thousand miles apart.”
Russell was happier on the field than off it. Real officials empathized and on multiple occasions discussed a trade with United. But Russell was an “important part of their success, we were doing okay and, for one reason or another, the timing was never right,” United General Manager Dave Kasper said.
After the season, the timing was finally right. Real needed to trim the payroll and United needed to acquire a right back to replace Perry Kitchen, who was slated to move into the midfield this year.
“We could’ve gotten a lot more for him” in a trade, Real GM Garth Lagerwey said, “but knowing his situation, your hope is if you do it right, it pays itself back someday.”
When training camp breaks, the couple will consider looking for a bigger, more permanent home in the area. To mark the transition, Robbie plans to add a tattoo of United’s red-and-black shield onto the right side of his rib cage, alongside the circle of colorful emblems denoting each of his previous clubs.
“Hopefully,” he said, “this is the last one.”