To mix it up, this alumni series has moved on to a current player. Josh Williams grew up a Crew fan in Copley, Ohio and then had to live the entire 16-month relocation saga from the inside as a member of the team.
As the snow swirled outside my window in Cleveland, Josh called from rainy Columbus and we chatted about the #SaveTheCrew saga from his unique vantage point.
Here is our full conversation in Q&A format. it’s a long read, but what else is there to do on this cold, miserable weekend? Hopefully it will warm you up on the inside.
I guess we’ll start with this 15-month ordeal. Obviously, as players, moving around is part of your job anyway, whether that’s trades, expansion drafts, or signing with a new team. You know that firsthand. But I would think for someone such as yourself, who grew up a Crew fan, the thought of leaving Columbus in this manner would be a little bit different. What was it like to go through this not only as a current player, but as someone growing up rooting for the team?
The one thing that I would take away from it is that our staff and our locker room did an unbelievable job keeping things outside of our control out of the locker room and completely out of training. We did such a good job of it and the staff did such a good job of it that it didn’t really affect us too much on the field. The one thing it did do was it revved our engines a little bit. As good as we were doing on the field, that wasn’t the topic. All we thought was that the media was going to come to us and talk about the success on the field, and the way we were playing, and the run to the conference final two years ago and even last year we made a good run. It didn’t affect our psyche too much, but it was just a slap in the face. I think that’s what got under a lot of guys’ skin.
Now that it’s over, on a personal level, it gives me and my family and my girlfriend a sense of stability instead of dealing with the unknown. There was this shadow lurking over us the whole time where we couldn’t plan anything past the end of this season. When the news finally broke, my sense of relief swayed that way. It was like, “Thank God I can finally tell the people I am close with what I’m planning on doing next year so we can finally plan ahead a little bit.” So that was nice.
It really was amazing how focused the team was. Was it surprising to you how focused the team was in all that turmoil and uncertainty? Did that come from Gregg, the team leaders, or did the team just naturally coalesce that way? Are you surprised at the level of focus looking back?
The first time I was surprised was when I realized how surprised other people were by our level of focus. When you’re in it, you only know one thing, and that’s what the coaches are telling you. We were focused on the task at hand. I’m someone who doesn’t like to read a lot of outside information. I don’t like to read opinions and all of that, so I just tried to maintain focus on the task at hand and what the mood was in the locker room and what the coaching staff was doing. So for me, I only had one side of it. I only had one perspective. So then to hear all of the questions about how amazing it was what we were able to cast all of this aside, that’s when the wheels started turning. I was like, “Yeah, it is kind of wild.” So that’s then when the other perspective kicked in and that it was pretty wild what we are able to allow our minds to do to maintain the focus that’s needed to sustain the level of being one of the best teams in the league.
I suppose that would give everyone who went through it confidence that if THAT isn’t going to shake you, then nothing will.
Exactly. That’s a great point. I remember going into the playoffs last year and thinking that not only was our staff going to have us prepared, but no one else in the league has been through what we have been through for the past 12-15 months. They have no idea what outside pressure is. They have a sense of pressure, but that not that kind of pressure where there’s a sense that your own organization’s fighting against your success. They were pulling in one direction and the team was still fighting to bring a championship to Columbus. As much as that organizational leadership were telling the media and trying to say all the right things, as a player, you know. It was pretty obvious what they wanted and us winning a championship was not going to help them in any way. That also gave us extra motivation and allowed us to come together even more.
It was just like Major League.
Exactly. I couldn’t believe how identical it was. It was wild.
You mentioned how focused the players and the coaching staff were in the locker room and on the field every day, but I imagine you’re still getting it out in public when fans see you around town, or from your families and your friends. You’re still hearing about it and confronted by it.
I can say that I had to talk about it with at least one person every single day since the news first came out. For sure. Every single day, whether I wanted to or not. It was the elephant in the room. At first, I could sense myself being annoyed by it. I was allowing it to turn my moods and dictate how I was reacting to it and I didn’t like that. So then you just start telling them generic answers. Like, “I literally have no idea. You’re guess is as good as mine.” That’s all you can do. It’s totally out of your control. I was very conscious of the energy I was putting into it and I didn’t want it dictating my day and upsetting me, so I tried to stay even-keel with it when I was asked the questions and not allow it to negatively affect me because I didn’t have the answers. Nobody did.
So being with the guys became the refuge from answering the questions when you were out in public or in your personal lives.
Absolutely. For five or six hours a day, you were with people who were going through the exact same thing as you. None of us had any answers. In those hours at the training ground, we didn’t necessarily need answers. There was a task at hand that we needed to accomplish. That’s what it was. And like you said, there was a little bit of a refuge there where you could take your mind off of it and completely focus on something else.
When the news first broke about Dr. Pete and the Haslams being in talks to buy the team in October, you made your way over to Endeavor Brewing to celebrate with the fans. What was that day like for you to celebrate the potential saving of the Crew?
I was sitting at lunch. There were probably 15 of us at lunch and Jon Kempin came in and said, “Have you heard?” We were like, “Heard what?” He said, “There’s a rumor that the Haslams are going to save the Crew and Dr. Edwards is involved. It was on twitter.” So I got on twitter in the parking lot before heading home and I read that there was going to be a celebration at Endeavor. It sounded like it was going to be a small celebration. I’m figuring everybody’s at work. I’m thinking there would be some #SaveTheCrew people that I’d talked to before, so I’ll go there.
I called Hector (Jimenez) to see if he wanted to come, but he already had other plans, but I still decided to head over there. In my mind, I remember thinking there would be 10-15 people and I’d go have a beer with them and go home. That is what I was thinking while going there. I get there and it’s exactly what I thought. There’s 10-15 people there. They were happy to see me and I was happy to celebrate with them. I had a beer and talked to everybody that I thought would be there.
Then I see Adam Jahn out there, so I go outside to see him, and by the time I come back in, the population in there doubled. So then I get offered some more drinks, so I have another beer and 20 minutes go by and then THAT population doubled. It was out of control. I remember thinking, “Don’t these people have jobs? Why is everybody here right now?” By the end, I had to get out of there. I was calling my girlfriend, I was calling Hector, and I was telling them, “Someone come save me! I’m going to be passed out if I keep accepting all of these drinks people are trying offer me!”
It was all worth it. It was one of the happiest places I have ever been in. It was just amazing to feel all of that positive energy. You could tell everybody was there for the right reasons. They worked hard, so I wanted to show my appreciation. I wanted to show my appreciation for their hard work and to celebrate that our team gets to stay in this city and that we get to continue this run that we’re on. I had a good time.
That was a huge event on October 12, but it wasn’t officially official. What was it like on January 9 when it was finally official?
It was a long wait from the Endeavor day to January 9. It was a bit of an uneasy feeling. I had the complete confidence that they would do it, but I just needed it to be confirmed. Then on January 9, I had already done most of my celebrating at Endeavor, so I was celebrated out. I couldn’t drink any more and didn’t want to drink any more. I had celebrated all I needed to in October. It was just a sense of relief that the loose ends were tied and we could finally move forward and start moving the organization in the right direction.
I think that was a day that a lot of people in Columbus and even outside of Columbus who are fans have been waiting for. It was just a cool day, looking back on how hard these fans have worked. I had told people out loud to their face that I thought the team was leaving. I didn’t think it was possible. Just the way everything was trending with the league, and then they came out with that logo for Austin, I don’t know, it just seemed that forces were pushing the Crew out of the city. So for that day to come, to see all of that hard work pay off, and to see my team that I grew up rooting for were staying here, and hopefully I’ll be around long enough to possibly open up the new stadium and be a part of it.
It’s just a cool chapter to be a part of in the history of the club. As much history as our club has, I got to be a part of this and I look forward to telling my kids and my grandkids, hopefully down the road, that I got to be a small part of it.
You mentioned the new stadium, how excited are you by those renderings? And also what do you think of the plan to keep MAPFRE Stadium as part of the new training facility and sports park? It’s such an important landmark for American soccer, I am so happy that they are keeping it around for the community to use. As someone who appreciates that history, what are your thoughts on the new facilities that are being planned?
I think the new stadium, the new toy for the city, is going to be amazing. As a player, you get a new stadium like that and it automatically adds excitement. We can’t wait to play there. We saw the renderings and it looks amazing. As a player, I’m just trying to stay healthy and stick around so I can hopefully play there. To keep the old stadium around and to have the new training facility, I think that will be amazing not only for the club, but also the city. It sounds like they have a lot of cool projects planned there.
But also just driving past it on the highway, I have so many memories there: going to Crew games with my dad and my family, and then making my MLS debut and playing in tons of huge games there, and watching tons of U.S. Soccer games there, so when I go past it on the highway, to this day, there are a lot of emotions. To this day, when I pass it, I look at it. I get even with it and I’m still looking at it. Then I have to check the road and then I look back at it. Then I’m looking in the rearview mirror at it. It’s one of those things where I look at it and I still can’t believe I play there, so to be able to have that around for my future kids and all that, that’s the original stadium and I’ll be able to tell them the history. It will be cool for the city as well.
So what’s it like knowing that Dr. Pete is going to be part of the ownership group? What do the fans need to know about Dr. Pete?
Oh man. What a guy. He’s someone who’s got all these inside jokes. When he comes into the locker room, everybody brightens up a little bit. I’ve had all types of inside jokes that I can’t even say because you can’t even publish it. We’ve been bantering back and forth with him for years.
He’s just someone who completely cares about the organization. He would do anything for us. He’s a fan at the end of the day, but also someone who is so approachable. He has the best interests of the club in mind at all times. He’s someone that I’ve called a friend for a long time, and now I call him my boss-friend. [Laughs.] I’m going to have to start speaking to him with more respect now.
The cool part is that as good as he is to have around the locker room and as much as the guys banter with him, we realize that he’s very good at what he does and he cares about what he does. There’s always that joking banter with him, but he always has the utmost respect of everyone in that locker room. To have somebody like that go out and spend his own money and time and energy to keep this club going and to point this club in the right direction, which is something it sounds like he is completely buying in on, so to have someone like him and the Haslams spend their own finances and time and energy to make this the best it can be is awesome.
When I think of Dr. Pete and you, I think of when you had your blood clot in 2014 and Dr. Pete reached out to Brian McBride, who had the exact same surgery, and then McBride called you to talk about his experience. I remember talking to you at the time and how blown away you were to get a call from the player that was your hero as a kid, who was now helping you through the process because he had the same blood clot issue and surgery. I know it was Dr. Pete who made that connection and instigated that, which is probably a good example of how he values the history of the club and the current players and just trying to take care of people.
Exactly. That’s just a small example of what he’s done over the years. That meant everything to me. I don’t think any player is too big or too small for him to reach out and do something like that. It’s just a small example of his dedication to the club, his willingness to ease everybody and to make people as comfortable as possible. That’s something I will always be grateful for. Getting that call from McBride was an awesome move on his part and something I will never forget.
As a Browns fan, what’s it like knowing that the owners of the Cleveland Browns played a huge role in the saving of the Crew?
It couldn’t be any better, right? Not only do we get Doc Edwards, but the Haslam family reaches out and they are part of it too. As a lifelong Browns fan, it was…JACKPOT! That’s what I kept telling people. “Jackpot! It’s the best of both worlds!” That was cool, man, especially since us Browns fans have gone through something similar and in that case, it actually happened where they moved. It almost happened to us, so I thought it was ironic that it was the owners of the Browns who came through and saved us from that whole debacle. Just cool all around. I’m excited to see what they’ll do with the club.
And then to also have the Art Modell Law be thing that bought enough time to get the current owners of the Browns involved.
Exactly. It’s full circle for people like us who have lived through both.
Finally, what would you say to the fans who fought so hard as part of the #SaveTheCrew movement and accomplished something that had never been done before?
What is there left to say? It’s the ultimate underdog story. It started off as a few people and then it grew and it grew and it grew. It was just tireless work. I heard some people quit their jobs to work full time on this. To have that kind of dedication, as someone who plays for the club currently and grew up as a fan of the club, it just gives you a sense as player that…every player plays the games for different reasons. There are personal reasons, family reasons, and other reasons, but there are times throughout the game where a boost from the crowd helps. You hear the Nordecke cheering. You hear the crowd doing chants. That all lifts you, but when you see a fanbase like this go through what they went through and continue to fight, it’s just something where you can’t wait to get back out on the field and represent a fanbase like that.
They are one of one right now. No other fanbase has been able to do what they did. To me, it’s just the ultimate level of appreciation for them. I have the utmost appreciation for what they’ve done and it’s something that will go down in history. Like I said, I’ll be able to tell my kids and grandkids that I had a small hand in it and they’ll be able to do the same thing. I hope every game they show up and wear the badge and colors, and as players, I know we are in a little bit of disbelief that it actually happened, but also, in talking to a lot of the guys in the offseason, we can’t wait to get back and to play in front that fanbase and to show our appreciation for them.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.