Columbus Crew defender Josh Williams has been called a “beast” of a defender by head coach Robert Warzycha and has created scoring chances at a rate that would make a forward envious.
His story rivals his game. Wlliams’ road from childhood Crew fan to the team’s starting lineup is a jumble of fortuitous twists and timely turns. The feel-good story of the Crew’s 2012 campaign is also its most unlikely.
Article continues below ...
As a freshman at Copley High School, near Akron, Williams ached to play basketball with his friends. At the suggestion of his club soccer coach, he had devoted himself fully to soccer, so he spent the winter in the bleachers during basketball season. He would not make the same mistake in the spring. After a meeting with the baseball coach and principal, and after seeking guidance from his parents, Williams followed his heart, giving up club soccer to be a three–sport athlete in high school.
A point guard in basketball and a star midfielder for Copley’s state-ranked soccer team, it was Williams’ exploits on the diamond that caught the eyes of college scouts. As a junior, the power-hitting shortstop drew attention from Kentucky, West Virginia and other Division I schools before making a curious decision. He informed his coach that he would not be playing baseball in college, having realized his participation was fueled by friendship rather than love of the game.
“Baseball is very boring to play,” Williams says. “In soccer, there are always new situations to get out of and you’re constantly moving, but in baseball, you just stand there a lot. I just couldn’t do it. I liked soccer so much better.”
Having skipped out on highly competitive club soccer during his high school years, though, Williams had dropped off of the Division I radar.
“The only guy who would take a chance on me, who offered me a walk-on spot, was Ali Kazemaini at Cleveland State.”
The former Cleveland Force star was taking over a CSU program that finished 0-16-1 the year before. The Vikings were bottom of the barrel in the unheralded Horizon League, but Josh Williams had found his chance.
Williams’ soccer career nearly ended before he played a single game at Cleveland State. Struggling to adapt to the speed of the college game in the first few practices, he considered walking away and having a normal college experience somewhere else with his friends.
“I think the only reason I didn’t do it is because I couldn’t imagine not playing a sport,” Williams says. “I couldn’t imagine not being busy with something.”
Instead of quitting, he willed himself to practice the next morning, and with each passing day, the game slowed down and his confidence grew. He started the season opener, a 4-0 win over Robert Morris, which snapped the Vikings’ 16-game losing streak. The team went on to finish 6-10-2, and Williams earned a spot on the Horizon’s League’s all-newcomer team.
His success led to transfer temptations, but Williams wanted to help rebuild the CSU program. “I couldn’t leave the players and the coaching staff,” he says. “I will always appreciate those guys for giving me a chance. I will always be faithful to the Vikings.”
Williams’ faith was rewarded. Under his captaincy, the Vikings played in the conference title game his junior and senior seasons. Even though they lost both championship matches, it was a stunning turnaround for a previously moribund program.
Still, success with Cleveland State in the Horizon League wasn’t enough to make MLS scouts swoon. Pro Player Pipeline listed Williams at the 79th best midfielder available in the 2010 MLS draft, giving him a “D” grade. ESPN was more (and inconsequentially) generous, ranking him 39th among midfielders. He was not invited to any of the pre-draft combines. As far as MLS was concerned, he was a non-entity.
“I wasn’t going to get drafted,” Williams, 24, says. “I didn’t even watch it. I didn’t even care at that point.”
But he still believed he could play in MLS. He may not have cared about the draft, but he cared about what his heart was telling him. It had been right too many times before. There would have to be another way.
The Williams family knew they would need to be industrious if Josh were to fulfill his dream of playing in MLS. Josh’s father, Steve, created a college highlight video and sent it to MLS teams, fishing for a tryout. Kansas City nibbled. However, Josh sprained his ankle just days before the tryout. The inopportune injury hampered his performance and he was not invited back.
Williams spent the summer playing for the Cleveland Internationals in the Premier Development League, which consists largely of college players competing during the NCAA offseason. He would be a rare post-graduate player, but he wanted to stay sharp for his next opportunity.
That next opportunity would come from the team he had faithfully cheered for since he was 8 years old.
Needing a player for an exhibition game against Marshall University on April 2, 2010, Columbus Crew technical director Brian Bliss called on the semi-local kid who had sent his resume and made a few follow-up calls. Bliss knew that was rare for a player to be so persistent, so he invited Williams down for a look.
“They must have known it would be easy for me to get down there,” Williams says with a laugh. “They didn’t promise me playing time, but told me to come down in case they needed me.”
If Crew defender Eric Brunner hadn’t suffered a concussion that afternoon, Williams may never have gotten off the bench. He certainly wouldn’t have found himself playing alongside a Crew legend like 2008 MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Not even two years earlier, Williams and his dad celebrated Schelotto’s scoop pass to Frankie Hejduk’s head for the Crew’s MLS Cup-clinching goal. Now Williams shared the field with the revered Argentine.
Instead of making a token appearance, Williams was getting a chance to forge the memory of a lifetime. After intercepting a pass, he played the ball to Schelotto. Seeing open space up the right side, Williams burst forward to fill it. Schelotto quickly played the ball ahead to Williams, who capped his 60-yard run with a cross to Sergio Herrera for a Crew goal.
“I remember everyone kind of froze,” Williams says. “It was kind of like, ‘Who’s that? Who made that run?’ I will never forget that moment. It was so surreal. I grew up watching these guys, and then I’m playing a one-two with Guillermo Barros Schelotto for an assist. After the game, I remember thinking that if I never get back here again, it’s so cool that I have that story to tell.”
Williams did get back again, appearing in two more college exhibitions. In the Connor Senn Memorial Game against Ohio State on May 4, fortune once again smiled on Williams. An early injury allowed him to enter and play most of the game at left back. Afterward, Warzycha asked Williams where was from and where he would be playing during the summer.
It was the last that Williams would hear from Crew for more than four months.
Williams could tell his wonderful exhibition stories, but the real world beckoned. After finishing the PDL season with the Cleveland Internationals, he re-enrolled at Cleveland State in the fall of 2010, looking to finish up his sports management degree.
While sitting in the back of a large lecture hall on the afternoon of Sept. 15, Williams made the uncharacteristic decision to answer a phone call from an unknown number in the middle of class. It’s the call that would change his life.
Sept. 15, 2010, was the roster freeze day for MLS, and the Crew planned to sign 2010 draft pick Kwaku Nyamekye to complete their roster. However, with a heavy slate of regular season, U.S. Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League games weighing down the season’s home stretch, Bliss wanted to ensure that the final roster spot got filled. The Crew needed a quick and available Plan B, just in case the Nyamekye deal fell through.
“Josh wasn’t really on our radar, but we knew him,” Bliss recalls. “He did OK in those college games (with the Crew). His geographic location was a big part of it.”
And so Williams’ phone rang in the back of the lecture hall.
“I kind of leaned down.” Williams says, “and I remember him saying, ‘This is Brian Bliss of the Columbus Crew. We have somebody in mind, but we could need you to sign in the next couple of hours.'”
Thinking friends were playing a prank from across the room, Williams asked Bliss if the call was real. “He said, ‘Yeah, this is real, and you might need to hurry. The deadline’s today and we only have an hour and a half to get this done.’ I told him I was in class, and he said, ‘Well, leave your class.'”
Following Bliss’s instructions to get near a fax machine, Williams fled the lecture hall and headed to the soccer training room. His dad rushed over from the Cleveland Clinic to assist with the process, should the offer even come.
Williams did his best to keep his expectations in check. Then the phone rang. Nyamekye had failed his physical. The Crew wanted to sign Williams.
“We were on the phone with Bliss, and he was talking to MLS, and we had like 30 minutes to get it all filled out,” says Williams. “The clock’s winding down, my hands are shaking, and I can barely sign my name. It was the wildest hour and a half of my life.”
Opportunity doesn’t always knock. Sometimes it calls your cell phone in the middle of class. Josh Williams answered the call, and that’s how he became a professional soccer player.
Williams has remained a professional soccer player through hard work, a good attitude and an uncanny ability to make the most of any unlikely opportunity that falls his way. His gutsy performance in two CONCACAF Champions League games immediately after his arrival in 2010 earned him an invite to training camp in 2011. A stalwart on the Crew’s reserve league team, it took Williams until March of 2012 to see action in an MLS game; due to a wave of injuries at the center back position, he has now started four consecutive matches with impressive results.
“I’ve had some success,” Williams says, “but three (now four) games out of a 34-game season is really small in the big picture. I just go out there every practice and every game and try to help my team win.”
Bliss praises Williams’ physical skills, mental toughness, and locker room presence, but he also admits that Williams has bucked a lot of trends when it comes to depth-player signings.
“You hope any guy you sign will make it long-term,” Bliss says. “However, based on history, he had a very long shot of sticking three years in. He has definitely made the most of his chances. He has the right attitude. If he continues to progress, he can have a long career in MLS.”
Whether this is the start of a long career as an MLS regular, or just a temporary turn in the limelight until the defense gets healthy, Williams is a good bet to give his best effort. All the breaks in the world wouldn’t have meant a thing if Williams didn’t live his life that way.
“You support all of your teammates, and if you get an opportunity, you try to make the most of it,” Williams says. “At the end of the day, I play soccer for a living. I’ve accomplished my dream. Every day, I am thankful for my position. If you ever feel disappointed, you go home and you realize that you do what you love as a job.”