The Columbus Crew had a plan coming into the 2020 season. After conceding 47 goals last year in 34 games and missing out on the MLS Cup playoffs, the Crew wanted to improve the defensive play.
Columbus was successful, conceding just 21 goals in 23 games. It is a major reason why the Black & Gold are hosting the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night.
But the Crew didn’t become one of the best defenses in Major League Soccer this year the way the team thought.
Following the 2019 season, Columbus signed Dutch center back Vito Wormgoor. The thought was his physical, vocal presence, would pair nicely with captain Jonathan Mensah, who is athletic and can chase down attackers. That partnership lasted for 107 minutes before Wormgoor went down with a season-ending injury in the first game of the MLS is Back Tournament in July.
In stepped veteran defender Josh Williams. The 32-year-old center back, who is in his second spell with his home state team, started 12 of the remaining 20 regular season games for the Crew, missing four of those contests due to an unspecified league suspension. He has also started each of the Black & Gold’s three postseason games.
“I don’t ever do this for me,” Williams said last week. “So what I think is so important is to be a good teammate. And we brought in Vito, obviously I want to play every game but that guy’s a baller. I knew it right away. So I knew that I would have to play exceptionally just to get time on the field.”
With Wormgoor out, Williams’ approach didn’t change. The center back continued to go through his daily preparation, worked hard in training and was ready when his name was called.
When he stepped on the field and helped the Crew get off to a near record-setting defensive pace to start the season, his teammates weren’t shocked because they see what he does every day.
“I don’t think it is a surprise because his patience, whenever he wasn’t playing and the amount of work he put into the training ground and trying to support whoever was playing, it’s not a surprise the moment he is having now,” Columbus midfielder Artur said.
In games Williams started this year, the Black & Gold went 6-2-3, conceding just 11 goals. Despite playing alongside the captain, Williams was a vocal leader on the field and when he wasn’t in the lineup, despite the play of second-year professional Aboubacar Keita, that aspect of his game was missed.
On the training ground as well, Williams continued to be one of Columbus’ most important leaders, working with the younger players to help them be ready when needed.
“I talk to all of the young guys and say, ‘Look, no matter what your situation is, if you’re playing or not, be a good teammate, work your butt off week in and week out and it’s a privilege to be chosen and you’ve got to accept the situation. You’re not going to get anything out of it except negative stuff if you become a sulky teammate,’” he said.
Williams also took his game to another level. As an 11-year MLS veteran, the center back understands the league well. He studies opposing players and knows how teams like to attack a backline. This has made him valuable throughout his career and stuck out in 2020.
When the Crew ended the season winners of just three of 10 final matches, questions were asked of this defensive unit. After allowing just five goals through the first 13 matches, the backline became leaky. The Black & Gold conceded three goals to Toronto FC, two to FC Dallas and two to the Montreal Impact, all games that Williams started.
But, as he’s done throughout his career, the center back bounced back and the defense has once again been stifling in the MLS Cup playoffs, giving up only two goals and recording back-to-back shutouts on the way to the MLS Cup Final.
In the Eastern Conference Final against the previously potent New England Revolution, Williams was arguably the team’s man of the match. In the win, Williams was consistently in the right spots, intercepting two passes and clearing three others. He was a key figure in the Crew keeping a clean sheet against a side that scored seven goals in its first three postseason games.
“When I look at Josh, I think it may be the best year of his career,” Columbus head coach Caleb Porter said this week. “Even a senior player, a guy that’s been in the league a long time, a lot of different teams, had a lot of ups and downs, for him to settle into a rhythm where he’s maybe performing as well as he’s ever performed in his career, I think has said a lot about him.”
Williams will need to maintain his run of form that has carried him through much of 2020 on Saturday against a Seattle Sounders team that is the defending champions and also comes to MAPFRE Stadium flying high if he wants to win his first MLS Cup.
If things had gone according to plan for the Crew this year and Wormgoor had stayed healthy, it’s likely the defense would have improved from last season and the team would have been successful. But Williams made sure that when an important defensive piece went down, he was ready to step in and saw the fruits of his labor with how he played for the Black & Gold this season.
“I’m proud of myself looking back on it,” Williams said. “You arrive each day and you’re blessed to even be considered a soccer player. You’re a professional soccer player; you’re living your dream. So show up, work hard and it’s a privilege to be chosen. I’m lucky to be in the position and I’m trying to make the best of it.”