Josh Williams’ path from Copley High School to the Columbus Crew has been filled with roadblocks and missteps and anxiety.
He never dreamed that quitting his club soccer team to play three sports with his neighborhood friends would make it tough to find a college scholarship. He never thought the nutritional supplement he bought at a national chain would contain a substance banned by Major League Soccer, especially since he grilled the salesperson about it. He never imagined he would get red-carded 20 minutes after scoring his first MLS goal.
But of all the twists and turns on his way to becoming a Crew starter, two days might stand out.
The first came in April 2010, when Williams was invited to participate in a Crew exhibition match against Marshall University. He didn’t expect to get much playing time, but early in the game two Crew players knocked heads, leaving one with a concussion. Williams was summoned to go in at left back, a position he’d never played before, and made an impression with what his dad called a “Wow” moment.
Important phone call
The second came in October 2010, when Williams took a cellphone call from an unknown number while sitting in a lecture hall at Cleveland State. The deadline for MLS rosters to be set was just hours away and Crew technical director Brian Bliss had a spot to fill after a draft pick failed his physical. Bliss told Williams to leave class and stay by the phone.
Not long after, Williams signed with the team he’d loved since he was 8.
His parents, Steve and Kathy Williams, sometimes marvel at their 25-year-old son’s persistence.
“He took such a different path to get there,” said Steve Williams, a customer service engineer for Siemens Health Care. “He quit the club scene for a while. He wasn’t drafted.
“As a junior and senior during his college days, I saw him go up against some older guys who had been in the pro leagues and thought, ‘He can play there.’ But I was amazed at his journey.”
Williams was somewhat naïve when he decided to quit playing for the Internationals club soccer team after his freshman year at Copley. He sat out freshman basketball, watching from the stands as his neighborhood friends competed, and hated what he was missing.
“I knew I was good at soccer, but I didn’t know which way I wanted to go at that point,” Williams said. “I just wanted to play with my friends, you only get that opportunity once.”
So when his sophomore year began, Williams became a three-sport standout for the Indians. A soccer midfielder, he was twice chosen All-Ohio and shared the school’s career scoring mark when he left. He played point guard in basketball and was a power-hitting shortstop in baseball, drawing interest from the University of Kentucky and West Virginia.
He liked basketball and said it might have been his pick if he were taller than 6-foot-2. Baseball was too slow. So Williams elected to pursue soccer, but soon learned that college recruiters concentrated on club players.
Steve Williams thought he had University of Akron soccer coach Ken Lolla interested, but Lolla left for Louisville. When UA coach Caleb Porter wanted to see Williams play, it was basketball season.
His only Division I offer came from new Cleveland State coach Ali Kazemaini. The season before, the Vikings had gone winless. By the time Williams was elected captain as a junior and senior, they were playing in two consecutive Horizon League championship games.
After college, Williams joined the Internationals’ Premier Development League. He had an MLS trial in Kansas City, but sprained his ankle the day before he left.
“When they didn’t pick me up I wasn’t too surprised,” Williams said. “I was kind of adding fuel to the fire. That wasn’t going to stop me. I was at least going to try for another year.”
Williams returned to CSU to work on his degree in sports management, then got the call to participate in the Crew’s reserve game against Marshall.
“Josh had the most exciting play of the game,” Steve Williams said. “He stepped in and stole a ball. He went down the sideline, [Guillermo Barros] Schelotto fed him and he ripped a ball across the middle and this guy put a shot in for the goal.”
The play got him noticed, but months went by and Williams didn’t hear from the Crew again. His father put together a highlight tape and mailed it to MLS teams. Hours later, Bliss called. Two weeks after Williams signed, he was starting in the CONCACAF Championship in Guatemala.
Failed drug test
Still, there were setbacks. In April, 2011, Williams suffered a torn labrum in his right hip. That June, the MLS announced a 10-game suspension for Williams after he failed a drug test after buying a supplement at a national chain.
“I went to them right away,” Williams said. “The trainers knew what had happened. I addressed the team immediately. I told the coaching staff individually. I definitely feel fortunate they were on my side and believed in me. They didn’t have to. I wasn’t a starter then.”
Williams went to New York to meet with MLS commissioner Don Garber, who was also sympathetic. Garber reduced Williams’ fine from 10 to five percent of his salary and allowed him to train with the team when his hip improved, which normally wouldn’t have been allowed.
In 2012, Williams played in 30 games and started 27 with one goal and three assists. This season he has made 12 starts at right back and is third on the team in goals with three.
“For a defender, he’s better than average on the ball,” Bliss said in a telephone interview last week. “I think he’s a decent passer. Athletically he’s one of our better guys as far as running and turning and stopping and changing directions. He’s also driven by winning. Some guys might be better, but maybe they don’t have that extra intangible of wanting to win and wanting to compete and wanting to be the best guy in his area of the field.
“He doesn’t fly by the seat of his pants and make plays because he can cover stuff up with his athleticism. He reads the game pretty well, he understands what danger is and makes plays accordingly.”
A Crew fan growing up who idolized Brian McBride, Williams still has moments when he can’t believe this is his job.
“I wake up every day and I’m like, ‘Wow, I get to go play soccer for two hours.’ It’s still unbelievable to me,” he said.
“I never want to get complacent, I never want to feel like I’ve made it.”
After such a rugged journey, Williams can think no other way.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.