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Josh Williams’ return brings a leadership boost to Columbus

Williams does more than slide tackle, and the Crew will need it all to compete in the Eastern Conference

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Columbus Crew center back Josh Williams celebrated his 150th appearance in black and gold. Unfortunately, the appearance didn’t result in a Crew victory, but it’s a big step in Columbus’ fight to get back into the MLS Cup playoff spot.

The Crew’s 3-2 loss to Eastern Conference second-place Orlando City SC was Williams’ first minutes since June 19, 2020, when the club and supporters celebrated the final match in historic Crew Stadium. Williams played the full 90 minutes but sustained an ankle injury.

Williams’ extended absence resulted was a defense struggling to find continuity. Captain Jonathan Mensah held his role at center back, but next to him was a rotation of Vito Wormgoor, Aboubacar Keita, and even midfielder Liam Fraser.

Before Williams’ injury, the Crew gave up multiple goals in a match just once, a match Williams didn’t even start. Also, Columbus also only lost once in Williams’ six starts. Compared to the inexperienced Keita, and European veteran Wormgoor, who’s still adjusting to MLS, Williams has strengths that the Black & Gold have missed.

Those 150 matches of league experience put Williams in a position where he better anticipates the movement of the opposition. Knowing is one thing, but Williams also quickly fills empty spaces and helps set the tempo of the defensive backline.

Overall, Williams studies the game and knows how to organize the team, something that head coach Caleb Porter wants back on the field.

Porter called Williams “a guy that is constantly reading and analyzing the game.” That on-field analysis, combined with Williams’ ability to lead, turns into the ability to coach on the field, something the Crew has lacked in the matches the veteran missed.

Lack of continuity is a phrase that most Columbus supporters don’t want to hear after it’s been the rallying call from Porter and the team for weeks. The truth is, every team goes through injury issues and needs to adapt for whatever the schedule throws at it, but to Williams, there was something different this season.

At the beginning of the year, the defending MLS Cup champions didn’t fair too well either, winning one of the first five games and not scoring a regular season goal until their third match of the season. A regression like that is normal after a title run, but there’s a difference between then and the recent stretch of six losses in the last seven.

“It kind of sorted itself out with a lot of experience and as injuries happened. We needed somebody to step up and I wasn’t always available at times,” said Williams about that vocal on-field presence. “Hopefully we learn from that and some of the young guys learn from that.”

Williams was once a young guy too who wasn’t the on-field commander that’s now a fan favorite to Crew supporters. At New York City FC, David Villa led the club. When Williams moved to Toronto FC, U.S. internationals like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore had control of the team. It wasn’t until Williams’ homecoming in Columbus that he found his voice. It’s a skill that doesn’t always make him the most popular player in the match.

“You gotta call people out and you have to be able to take responsibility with yourself,” said Williams. “It’s not always the most comfortable being outspoken. Not that I like conflict, but sometimes conflict is necessary. You have to right some wrongs.”

Williams is highly regarded by his teammates, even if they get an ear full during the match. Forward Miguel Berry said earlier this week that he always wants to be on Williams’ team, no matter what.

The center back’s return doesn’t mean that the Crew finally have a leader on the field. Columbus is full of these type of players, from his position mate and captain Mensah, forward Gyasi Zardes and midfielder Lucas Zelarayan. To Williams, the lack of ego, and diversity of leadership voices on the team is a rare strength in the league.

“A lot of guys have a lot of experience here,” said Williams. “At different times of the game, different times of the year, different people speak up and to me, that’s important on this team as we don’t have a lot of ego on this team.”

Now that Williams is off the injury list, he’s got the chance to be the next leader up on the field. If the Crew hopes to make the MLS Cup playoffs and a run at another championship, Williams will need to be just that.