[NOTE: To read earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE. And since photo captions might not show in the mobile version, I’ll say right here that all photos are by my friend Sam Fahmi.]
After the goal that put the Crew up 3-0, but before the three tweets of the referee’s whistle to make it official, Josh Williams tried to concentrate on maintaining the shutout as an exclamation mark on a complete team performance. But he is only human. In stoppage time, his mind involuntarily wandered and he began contemplating how he was going to celebrate at the final whistle. Such deliberations proved fruitless in the end.
“As soon as it blew, I couldn’t even do anything,” he said. “I just collapsed. My emotions were so much that I lost it. I started crying. I don’t even know what I was thinking in that moment. It just seemed like everything that had built up in my career over the last 11 years and even before that just came rushing out of me. There was probably some relief and some pride in the journey. I don’t even know.”
Once he gathered himself, he looked around and every person he saw provoked a stream of good feelings and memories for their role in the journey. He wanted to hug and thank each of them in that moment, but everything was happening so fast. Soon, it was time to take the stage for the trophy celebration.
The celebration was something Josh had been visualizing all week. He’s a big believer in the benefits of visualization, and this moment was also what Josh had been telling Aidan Morris to visualize once the 19-year-old learned he would be in the lineup. And now the moment had arrived.
“When it was all happening, it was a surreal moment that I had already played out in my head,” he said. “I had visualized myself on that stage, but I couldn’t visualize the feeling because I had no idea how that would feel. So I visualized myself looking at it and seeing Jona lift the Cup and seeing all the confetti and all that. So when I was in that moment, and I remember seeing it on the TV broadcast where I’m up there with the team and I have my hands on my head because in that moment I realized that I’ve literally seen this and it worked in a sense. It just played out so beautifully.”
Under normal circumstances, the team would make its way to the front of the Nordecke and join a packed supporters’ section in a rousing rendition of “Wise Men Say.” There was nothing normal about this night. First, the team was lugging the MLS Cup trophy to the Nordecke. There’s nothing normal about that. Second, the Nordecke was at a small fraction of its usual capacity due to pandemic restrictions on attendance. For Josh, it didn’t dilute the emotional power of that moment in any way.
“I saw a million people there, Steve,” he assured me. “I saw a million people in the corner. It was in that moment that it really hit. I hoped in that moment that everybody who would normally be there, and everybody who was there in the past, and everybody who will be at the new stadium, that was the moment that I felt so much pride in what we accomplished. And I don’t mean ‘we’ just in the sense of the players or coaches or front office, but ‘we’ in the sense of the #SaveTheCrew movement. That moment in the corner is something I will never forget because that moment linked to the fan in me. That moment was like, ‘Okay, I did this as a player, but for the fan in me, this is a surreal moment for that kid.’ For that side of me, I couldn’t believe that I get to raise a trophy and show them because I was them at one point. Every kid has a dream of doing that, but when you are living in that moment, I can’t put it into words. It’s such a surreal experience. I’m just so thankful to be able to experience a moment like that. It’s indescribable. I can’t put it into words. I don’t even want to try. I just know how I felt in that moment and it was the best feeling ever.”
“I remember later trying to find the words to tell (#SaveTheCrew’s) Morgan Hughes how thankful I was for everything and he said something like, ‘It’s nearly impossible to use something as finite as the English language to describe how much this means to me.’ I think that’s very true because I don’t even know of a word that can sum up my feelings, not only for me personally, but for everybody involved. Every single person. I felt so much happiness and pride that we were all able to experience that.
“It’s so hard for me to compare anything because it’s a story that if you took it to Universal Studios and said this is what we want to make a movie about, they would look at it and say that’s cheesy and nobody is going to believe it. The emotional rollercoaster of the swing we just experienced is the coolest story that I know. But I lived it, so I’m biased. Still, it’s something too good to be true and it really is true. And now we have the momentum of a new stadium opening next year. So that’s actually happening. It’s like, what? How is this actually happening in my life? It’s nuts. It’s absolutely insane.”
After the Nordecke moment, Josh raced to the west stands to visit with his family and friends, just as he felt the urge to do right after Zelarayan iced the game in the 82nd minute. He grabbed a bucket of beers and had a quick toast in the stands with them, then headed back to do the lap celebration with his teammates.
“Seeing all the parts of the stadium was really cool because not everybody is in the Nordecke,” he said. “The Nordecke is the end of game tradition, but to go around the entire stadium and to see everyone and to thank everybody and give them our appreciation, it was a really cool moment. Yeah, we have that tradition with the Nordecke, but all the other fans mean just as much to us. A lot of our goal celebrations are in the corners, so we get to see the excitement in each corner. But to share it with the whole stadium, it felt personal because of the individual faces that you were seeing and you’re seeing people that have been in the same seats for years, through the ups and downs, and getting to share in that moment with them and see the joy in their faces was special. Most of them were crying, so taking that lap around the stadium was another stage of the celebration that felt really special. It’s something I will never forget.”
As is tradition, a pro sports championship celebration wouldn’t be complete without the wanton spraying of champagne in the locker room. Williams entered a tarped off locker room and, soon, mayhem ensued. Within minutes, Josh sought refuge around the corner in the shower area in order to pump the brakes for a moment.
“I was drinking champagne too quickly and I just played a game and I’m malnourished and I’m already getting buzzed,” he explained. “So I had to go in the shower and I just sat there thinking to myself about, first, I need to let the buzz die down a bit. And then I just needed to check in with myself and make sure I am actually enjoying all this and how it feels. I didn’t want it to just be a blur. I wanted to be fully aware and to take little moments here and there to realize what was happening because I worked so hard for this, and we as a team worked so hard for this, so I wanted to reward myself by being able to remember things and to make sure I said thank you to everyone I needed to thank. I didn’t want it to just be a party. I wanted everyone to know what they meant to me, so I wanted to center myself a little bit. That was for like two or three minutes, and then it was like, ‘Okay, here we go again!’”
When Williams rejoined the party, who noticed a prominent absence. Head coach Caleb Porter was nowhere to be found. Armed with a bottle of champagne, Josh went on a mission to find his head coach and properly soak him. He found Porter in the middle of a Zoom interview in the media room, and it led to this incredible tweet.
“We were celebrating some more and I realized Caleb wasn’t in there. That’s where the whole video of me going into the press conference came from. I didn’t know the guy following me was filming. When I went in, I remember Tim (Miller) was in the mode of a serious press guy, but I looked at Tim and he was like, ‘Go ahead’ and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this is going to happen.’ When it happened, I didn’t realize it was on live TV. I thought it was just kind of a media scrum on a Zoom call. I didn’t realize that until I said the F word on live TV. I didn’t even realize it until later that night when I got home and was able to settle down and started going through my messages. And then I was like, ‘Well, I guess that happened. What can you do?’ But it was such a cool moment with Caleb.”
The locker room celebration lasted until one in the morning. Afterward, Josh met up with his lifelong friends from Copley to share in the moment with them. Some of them had come from all over the country to support him in the biggest game of his career.
“It was one of the coolest moments of my life, getting to celebrate it with all of my childhood buddies, and just the fact that they all showed up and were as excited as I was,” he said.
On Monday, Josh and some friends already had tickets to go the Monday Night Football game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. They made their plans weeks in advance of MLS Cup.
“We figured Browns-Ravens on Monday Night Football was going to be one of the biggest games of the year,” he said. “And my buddy said to everyone, ‘That’s going to be a couple nights after Josh wins the trophy.’ And I remember telling them, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna win it and then I’m gonna take the trophy to the Browns game.’”
Josh was only joking at the time. He wasn’t joking about the Crew eventually going all the way and winning MLS Cup. His confidence in his team had already been well established in the series of stories. He was just joking about the part where he’d lift MLS Cup at the Browns game.
Except that became a reality too. The Browns prepared a tribute to the Crew during the first TV timeout. Josh, Jonathan Mensah, Gyasi Zardes, and Chris Cadden were on hand, as were head coach Caleb Porter and President and GM Tim Bezbatchenko.
“They put us on the scoreboard screen and played a video clip that was a montage of what happened throughout the year,” he said. “There’s clips of everybody on the team and Jimmy and Dee and Caleb and Tim. When it was over, they cut to us and we all passed around the trophy. We had a moment to raise it and show it to everyone, and the stadium gave us a standing ovation and applause and then I don’t know because I blacked out. To lift the trophy in the Browns’ stadium, I mean, it’s just a treat to be able to go there. I love being at the Browns’ stadium in general. But being able to celebrate a trophy with them is beyond comprehension. They really took care of us. It was a great moment. Definitely one of the best moments of my life. It was awesome.”
By the middle of the week, Josh needed to shut everything down. He went home to Copley to visit his parents, Steve and Kathy. He got to see his brother and his family. He got to see his grandparents.
“I wanted to go home and separate myself from it a little bit and finally relax,” he said. “I felt like I was on a party binge there for a while and my body wasn’t able to keep up with it. My body was failing me there for a little bit. I drove back home (to Copley) and sat on the couch. I told my parents this is literally where I’m going to be for the next couple days. They were fine with it. I remember sleeping almost 12 hours one day. And then two days in a row I remember waking up, and I normally wake up at around seven-ish, and I woke up thinking it was maybe 8:30… and it was 11:30. So you can tell my body needed it. It was depleted. It needed sleep.”
One of the fun things Josh did while home was re-watch the game with his dad. He got to do so with the benefit of hindsight. As we established earlier in this series, Josh was supremely confident the Crew were going to prevail even without Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos. And they did in a big way. So now he got to see what the outside perception of the situation really was.
“I wanted to see all the pregame news and hear what they were saying,” he said. “I remember when they said it was going to be 3-1 Seattle, I was like, ‘Damn. Really?’ Because in my mind, we were the better team. Even without Darlington and Pedro, I thought we were going to win by two goals. That’s what was in my head and I couldn’t change from that. That was locked in my head. In my mind, we were the favorite. So to hear them say that, I mean, now it makes sense. I get it. I’ve watched sports my whole life and I understand if you lose two key guys, your team is not supposed to be as good. I understand that. But in the moment, that thought never entered my head.”
The trip home also started a rewarding and fulfilling part of the process, and one that is still ongoing—reflecting on the magnitude of the 2020 Crew’s accomplishment and expressing gratitude for everyone and everything that got him to that point.
“I like doing that, just thinking about random things throughout life,” he said. “With the good and the bad, I like to think it through. With the good, I just like to think and center myself. That always brings me back and helps me appreciate what I’ve done and how I got here, but also what’s helped me along the way. It’s something I took little moments to try to do, but I haven’t fully taken the time to do that, so I’m looking forward to diving into what we all just accomplished.”
There are some parts of the experience that are still difficult for his brain to absorb. For example, receiving congratulatory messages from Crew players that he cheered for as fan blew his mind. And when I sent additional unsolicited comments about him by the likes of Frankie Hejduk, Dante Washington, and Mike Clark from my alumni reaction series, he said it gave him the chills to hear those words from those guys. This was especially true of the 2008 champions.
“I got messages from Duncan, Chad, Danny O’Rourke, all these guys that I played with before and those guys were my heroes growing up and going to Crew games and seeing them perform and being in awe of them,” he said. “And then I was able to be teammates with them and realize they are actually great guys and funny as hell and they are actually big grown-up idiots just like I am. So to be able to share that with these guys that I looked up to and wanted to emulate as a pro, and to get those messages, where it was like a mutual thing…I remember Chad saying, ‘You got yours, man. I’m so happy for you.’ And those words, until I read them, like, I didn’t even know what I was chasing.
“Now, to be mentioned in the same category as those guys, I think that’s an amazing place to be. I take pride in that. When I was telling the guys at halftime ‘45 minutes and we’re legends’, those were the guys I was speaking about. We could be mentioned in the same breath as those guys. I think of those guys and they are in hero status. I can’t place myself there because to me, I’ll always still be the kid who was watching those guys. So to me, those are my heroes, and to just have those guys reach out and message me, it was such a cool feeling. It’s another insane part of reality that I haven’t wrapped my head around yet.”
It’s definitely got to be hard to contemplate the idea that, like the 2008 team, you are a part of a small, legendary fraternity of Massive Champions. Especially for someone like Josh, who has never forgotten his unlikely path to the pros and hasn’t taken a day of his career for granted. How could you possibly view yourself in the same light as your heroes, even if you legitimately earned it by starting and playing all 90 minutes against the defending champions in the most lopsided victory in the history of MLS Cup?
“I just got chills thinking about that madness,” he said. “You can say the words, like at halftime I said we’ll be legends, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I just knew that as much respect as I have for those guys, that would be pretty cool to be viewed in that light. That’s something that hasn’t sunk in and I don’t know if it ever really does. When I talk to Chad and I think about him, I mean, I try to tell Chad all the time, ‘You’re the best defender I’ve ever seen. Like, you’re so good at soccer.’ But I don’t know if it ever really fully sets in with him. Like, I don’t fully know, as good as he is and as many trophies as he’s lifted and awards that he’s won, I don’t think he fully understands what type of light I view him in.
“So I don’t think it will click and I don’t know that I can ever get myself to get there. I don’t think of myself that way. To me, there are so many outside factors that even allowed us to do that. It would be selfish to think of myself as a legend when there was a whole (#SaveTheCrew) movement that was legendary. I think what everybody did should be talked about just as much as what the team did or any individual did. I think the movement in general had thousands of people who are in the legendary category for me.”
I couldn’t help but joke that he’s just another kid from Akron coming home for a second stint and delivering a trophy to his people.
“I’m not even gonna touch that,” he said. “Not gonna touch that. I guess you could say we won, but I’m not gonna touch that, Steve. LeBron’s too big for that. But it just feels good. Man it feels good. I get one aspect of it, which is the pride you feel for winning. I mean, I’ve only won one, but to me, it has to feel so much better being able to win it for something that has meant so much to you as a kid and it seemed so out of reach and to be able to have that become a reality is something that, I mean, in a way, I know what he felt because it does feel good to be able to share it with everybody.”
As part of Josh’s contemplation on the Crew’s historic MLS Cup triumph, he kept coming back to his 29 teammates. An MLS Cup championship is a special bond that will connect those 30 men in brotherhood for the rest of their lives.
“You have to understand how much relationships mean on the field,” he said. “If you like the guy working next to you, you’re going to work that much harder for him and you’re going to trust that person. With this team, I feel like it was such a special group. I feel like I have a lot of good things to say about everybody and I would like to talk about that.”
Um, yes please. So we did. In hours of phone calls spanning the course of multiple weeks, Josh talked to me about every single one of the other 29 guys on the MLS Cup winning roster. Starting tomorrow, at a rate of one per day, we are going to highlight each of the 2020 Massive Champions as seen through Josh’s eyes.
My latest book “A Massive Collection, Volume 1” is now available!
Also, for those who like to support local businesses, signed paperback copies are available at Prologue Bookshop in the Short North.