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JJ Williams is proving he should be on the field for the Crew

The rookie forward continues to earn more playing time, but now must take advantage by scoring goals.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Atlanta United at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

There are good days and bad days for JJ Williams. But that’s the case with most young players in Major League Soccer. Columbus Crew SC’s 2019 first-round draft pick is learning what many rookies do, that life in the pros isn’t the same as in college.

“I have to remind him every week that there are very few rookies that get minutes, even make rosters, these days,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said of Williams this week. “He doesn’t really want to hear that, which is good. He’s got the right mindset.”

Halfway through his first season as a professional, Williams has played just 82 minutes in four games for the Black & Gold. He spent time on loan with USL Championship side Birmingham Legion earlier this year where he played in five matches and recorded two goals.

But the production has not been there at the MLS level. At least not yet.

“With JJ, he’s like most young players, up and down,” Porter said. “I have the luxury of seeing him in training every day and part of why I haven’t started him yet is in training he’s a bit up and down and inconsistent.”

Porter has been hard on Williams but only because he sees potential in the forward. During a recent training session, Porter could be heard yelling at Williams from the sideline. The forward wasn’t getting back and helping his team defensively on a drill and the head coach made sure he knew that he wasn’t at Kentucky anymore and not hustling wasn’t an option.

But there are other moments, like during any early-season reserve team scrimmage where Porter celebrated a Williams goal like it was an MLS Cup winner, where the head coach gives the young player praise and lets him know he’s doing the right things.

“Definitely it’s taken some work for sure on both ends,” Williams said of his relationship with Porter. “But I think one of the most important things is getting on the same page. With every player and coach, it’s not just one of those things where it happens overnight. But if you’re able to build that confidence in each other and respect in each other, then I think that’s really going to help.”

Williams has the natural gifts Porter wants in a forward. He’s big, athletic, fast and has a desire and belief to score goals. Unfortunately, the goals haven’t come just yet.

In limited action, which includes two appearances off the bench in the U.S. Open Cup, those traits Porter likes are obvious. So is Williams’ inexperience. In recent games where Williams played as a substitute in an attempt to spark the Crew’s attack, he battled with some of MLS’s better defenders. The veterans got the best of the rookie, consistently one step ahead.

“You look back on the last several games, you’ll see three or four moments where he should have been more ready for that situation,” Porter said of Williams. “What I saw was a defender actually reading it ahead of him, anticipating those moments, which means he’s a second late or a step slow to then not maximizing that opportunity to get the finish or to ride the guy off and go.”

But that’s part of the learning process.

And Williams is learning.

Just this week, the rookie stayed on the field after practice was over and other players had gone inside, getting extra reps and working on his runs and his finishing. On Friday, he walked off the field talking to Pablo Moreira, listening intently and asking questions as the assistant coach gave him instructions on how he can improve.

“I think it’s one of those things where it just kind of helps me a little bit more, even if it’s the tactical side,” Williams said of the extra work with the coaches. “Making sure I have every set piece, everything down pat. What they want me to do, what they’re looking for. Making sure of that but also the psychological aspect that goes into it. These guys have my back. So I think that’s important as well.”

Williams admits that his rookie season has been frustrating. For a player who played regularly both in high school at Alabama Christian Academy and in college at Kentucky, sitting on the bench or watching games from the stands is not easy.

But Williams knew when he was drafted by the Crew that there weren’t going to be a plethora of minutes. Last season, striker Gyasi Zardes started 33 of 34 games for Columbus, rarely coming out of a contest early. The same has been true this year.

With Zardes currently away on international duty at the Gold Cup, Williams has an opportunity to play, but he has to earn the right to be on the field more and then take advantage of those chances.

“He needs to understand that as a young player, he has to earn those reps in training and with the minutes that he gets,” Porter said. “That’s the way it works. Every striker started off the bench and then bagged a couple goals and then got a start. So with him, it’s a process and he’s got to understand that you only earn your minutes through showing that you can get the job done in training and then obviously when you get your 25 minutes, you have to bag a goal.”

Goals are something the Crew desperately need. The team has scored just 16 times in 17 matches this season. No forward, other than Zardes, who has six goals, has scored yet this year and the offense struggles when he’s away.

While veteran Patrick Mullins has gotten the starts so far in Zardes’ absence, Porter said he’s starting to see enough from the young forward to merit playing from the opening whistle. The Black & Gold have a busy upcoming schedule, with Orlando City SC coming to town on Saturday, a trip to Real Salt Lake on Wednesday and another home match against the Seattle Sounders the following weekend.

Given the match congestion, it’s like Williams will get his first professional start soon. And he knows he needs to take advantage when that comes.

“Whenever I get that chance, no matter how much time it is, just make sure I bag a goal here or there,” Williams said. “That’s the best way for me to continue to get more time, continue to show myself to the coaches. And really, it’s the best way for our team to get a result.”