On the occasion of the Columbus Crew’s MLS Cup 2020 championship, I wasn’t sure how to approach writing about the Crew’s nationally-broadcast 3-0 disemboweling of the Seattle Sounders.
I could write about my own bittersweet experience watching the primetime Soundercide from my living room. Next to the couch, I surrounded myself with all manner of important and meaningful personal Crew artifacts for good luck since I couldn’t experience it firsthand and in great detail like in 2008. But my personal circumstance was completely unrelated to the Crew and isn’t really my story to tell. Besides, due to the out of control coronavirus pandemic, the overwhelming majority of Crew fans had to miss the revelry of being there in person or having any sort of communal experience even away from the stadium. For most of us, MLS Cup was like a surreal out of body experience. It was a singularly personal moment observed through a plate of glowing glass, completely out of reach. It definitely happened, yet it almost didn’t seem real.
As my phone started blowing with well-wishes and congratulations from friends across the soccer landscape, I knew I wanted to focus on the joy that MLS Cup 2020 brought to all of us in a difficult year. The alumni reaction series was a fun project, catching up with old friends and sharing their championship excitement with the Crew community. I also chose to focus my happiness on people who could be at the game, so I wrote a series of stories highlighting Savannah Bee and Andy Zartman and Katie Witham, who had three entirely different tales that made me happy for their ability to attend in person. I’ve also been soliciting people’s personal stories about watching MLS Cup or the 2020 Crew, because it’s fun to learn how the title uplifted others.
But as for the game itself, I didn’t settle on how to approach it until a week afterward. At 1:02 a.m. the night of MLS Cup, Josh Williams sent me one of my favorite postgame texts. After a whirlwind week for him, we finally caught up several days after the match. During our conversation, we hit upon a plan. We left it for some vague undefined point in the future as he wanted time to take a deep breath and process everything that had just happened in his life. A few days later, he called. He wished to begin downloading his brain while he was in the sweet spot between freshness and reflection. There have been many additional phone conversations in the weeks since then.
Starting Monday, this series will be MLS Cup through the eyes of Josh Williams. MLS Cup 2020 was a singular experience for so many of us, and now, fitting of the times, we are going to explore it from a singular point of view. First, the lead-up. Second, the game. Third, the celebration. And then, one by one, a daily look at each and every player on the roster.
Josh and I wanted to do this for ourselves. And for each other. And for you.
For those not familiar with his journey, I want to take a moment to explain why Josh winning MLS Cup with the Crew is so special. (A much fuller version of Josh’s improbable journey, with quotes, is chronicled in my book A Massive Collection Volume 1.)
As a Crew fan, if you were to ask yourself, “What would it be like if I were to win MLS Cup?”, you could find no better analog than Josh Williams.
Five days short of his eighth birthday, Josh was in attendance at the Horseshoe for the Crew’s inaugural game in 1996. A few years later, he shagged balls during a Crew exhibition in Cleveland, taking great delight in seeing heroes like Brian McBride up close. When the Crew won MLS Cup in 2008, Josh watched on TV at home in Copley with his dad, jumping off the couch in excitement with each Crew goal. The Columbus Crew were his club. He was every bit the fan that you are.
Of course, there have been other local Crew players, some of whom even grew up in the Columbus area, rather than Akron. In terms of games played, the two most notable are Danny O’Rourke and Wil Trapp. They have their own stories of attending Crew games as kids, but there’s something that sets Josh apart.
From a young age, O’Rourke and Trapp were special. They were stars by the time they reached the high school level, with each of them leading their team to a state title at MAPFRE Stadium. Then they played for powerhouse college programs at Indiana and Akron, respectively. O’Rourke predated the Crew’s academy, whereas Trapp was the poster child for it, but both players were identified early and groomed for success, and both of them ultimately experienced it with their hometown club. O’Rourke won two Supporters’ Shields and an MLS Cup, whereas Trapp won an Eastern Conference title and captained the U.S. Men’s National Team. Lots of kids are identified as having great potential, but O’Rourke and Trapp put in the work to make that potential a reality. They are both Crew heroes that represented their local community with pride and distinction.
Josh, though, he’s like a random Crew fan that won some bizarre and byzantine soccer lottery to even have a slim chance at playing professionally. He was a good high school soccer player at Copley, but college scouts were much more enamored with Josh Williams the slugging shortstop than Josh Williams the midfielder. Despite numerous baseball offers, Josh’s heart was with soccer. The only school to show any interest whatsoever was Cleveland State, who went 0-16-1 the previous year. Head coach Ali Kazemaini offered Williams a chance as a walk-on. By the time his college career ended, Williams helped the Vikings turn the program from a winless outfit to a team that appeared in a pair of Horizon League championship games in his junior and senior seasons. Still, MLS interest was non-existent. He was not invited to the draft combine and scouting services rated him as a non-prospect.
Josh, with the help of his parents and Kazemaini, remained persistent. Josh’s dad sent highlight tapes to MLS clubs and Kazemaini talked to his former Cleveland Force teammate Brian Bliss, who was the Crew’s technical director, to lobby on Josh’s behalf. Needing a warm body for a scrimmage against Marshall University in the spring of 2010, Bliss had Williams come down to the training facility at Obetz. A mid-game injury provided an opportunity for Williams to get on the field, whereupon he assisted on a goal by Guillermo Barros Schelotto. To Josh, if the journey never extended beyond that day, it was already a dream come true.
He got called down to Obetz for one more college scrimmage that spring, which also saw him get on the field as the result of a mid-game injury. And then that appeared to be it. He never heard from the Crew after that, so moving on with his life, he enrolled in more classes at Cleveland State that fall. His life would be forever changed on the afternoon of September 15, 2010, when he noticed an incoming call from a 614 number and uncharacteristically answered it in the middle of class. It was Bliss. The Crew had an open roster spot and wanted to fill it because of the strain of CONCACAF Champions League. They intended to sign draft pick Kwaku Nyamekye, but Bliss wanted Josh to be at the ready in case Nyamekye failed his physical. The roster deadline was in a few hours. Josh was an easy, nearby fallback option to chew up some CONCACAF minutes at the end of the year if the Crew’s planned signing fell through.
Nyamekye failed his physical. From the Cleveland State campus, Williams faxed a signed contract minutes before the roster deadline expired. Exactly two weeks later, he started for his beloved Crew in a Guatemalan mud bath against Municipal in CONCACAF Champions League. He started another Champions League game in Trinidad & Tobago and then wouldn’t see the field again for a long time. As a bottom of the roster player without much pedigree, there’s typically a short window to show what you can do. The next draft always provides a fresh, low-cost haul of potential diamonds in the rough. The Crew had no grand plans for Josh after 2010, but he had some physical tools and they loved his attitude. He worked hard at training every day to make himself and his teammates better, plus he was a great guy in the locker room. You could do a lot worse when it comes to squad players, so the Crew kept him around for 2011 and then again for 2012.
He finally saw the field again in 2012 when a rash of concurrent injuries along the backline opened the door for him to gain a foothold with the first team. Josh once again made the most of an opportunity and earned his place as a regular starter and contributor. He had success with the Crew over the next three years, but was ultimately traded to New York City FC prior to the 2015 season in some expansion draft maneuvering. He then landed in Toronto later that year and had his first MLS Cup experience with the Reds in 2016, when he was an unused sub in a penalty kicks loss to the Seattle Sounders.
He returned to the Crew in 2017, lived through the whole relocation saga, celebrated with his fellow Crew fans when the team was saved, and entered 2020 as a reliable veteran backup for the planned center back pairing of Jonathan Mensah and Vito Wormgoor.
Once again, an injury opened the door for Williams. Wormgoor went down in the opening game, so Josh and young homegrown Aboubacar Keita had turns pairing with Mensah, but by the end of the season and heading into the playoffs, Josh’s performances solidified his claim on the starting role.
24 years after attending the first-ever Crew game…12 years after celebrating a Crew MLS Cup title at home in Copley with his dad while watching the game on TV…ten years after a strange series of fortuitous dominoes fell in such a way that allowed him the chance to earn his dream of playing professionally for the Crew… eight years after a series of injuries opened the door for his first consistent MLS minutes…four years after watching helplessly from the bench as the Seattle Sounders won an MLS Cup title on his team’s home field…two years after celebrating with Crew fans after the club was saved from relocation…and just months after reclaiming a starting role, 32-year-old Josh Williams would take the field at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus against the dynastic Sounders with the chance to become a Massive Champion.
Even as an experienced 11-year veteran, Williams still shows the same appreciation for his job as he did in 2010. Through an abundance of dedication, fortitude, and gratitude, Josh had spent an entire career seizing one unlikely opportunity after another. Every time opportunity knocked, Josh Williams answered.
On the night of Saturday, December 12, 2020, opportunity knocked with a battering ram.
MONDAY: Through Josh’s Eyes: The Lead-up to MLS Cup
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