[MLS CUP 2009] This season will end with a quick turnaround for Andy Williams; the day after Real Salt Lake plays Los Angeles in MLS Cup 2009, RSL will conduct interviews and advise players as to their contract status for next year.
He and backup keeper Chris Seitz are the only survivors from the dismal five-win expansion season of 2005, and the steady progress to respectability that may have started when RSL hired forward Jason Kreis to replace John Ellinger as head coach early in the 2007 season.
"I think it does mean more to guys like Andy, because we've been through all the bad times," said Kreis, who despite retiring as the league's all-time leading scorer with 108 regular-season goals never played in a league championship game. "The saying goes that you have to go through difficult times to appreciate the good ones, and so if that is the case, both Andy and I are very, very appreciative of these last two years, for sure."
Williams has the chance to play in a championship game for the first time since 2003, when he and Chicago lost to San Jose, 4-2, at Home Depot Center. And he wishes to stay with the team that has employed him the past five years, after he played for five different teams in his first five seasons: Columbus, Miami, New England, Metrostars and the Fire.
"I've signed new contracts the past few years I've been here," said Williams, who came to RSL from Chicago in the expansion draft held late in 2004. "I don't know what's going to happen, we'll have to wait and see.
"I can't explain how good the people have been to us. It's great. My neighbors have been wonderful, the fans have been wonderful, I don't think I could have asked for anything better."
Whatever the outcomes of Sunday and Monday, Williams has displayed perseverance on and off the field. He played in 23 regular-season games, scoring two goals and assisting on six, yet started just seven times. Other midfield options - Javier Morales, Will Johnson, Clint Mathis, captain Kyle Beckerman, and midseason addition Ned Grabavoy - complicated the selection choices for Kreis.
"Everybody gets frustrated when they're not playing, but it just goes to show our team is well-stacked," says Williams, who has added defensive duties to the playmaking skills that got him drafted out of Rhode Island by the Crew in 1998. "I'm sure if some of our guys went to other teams they'd be starting and that's what the team here wanted, guys who would come in and battle each day for spots and make it difficult for the coaches to pick a starting XI. That's the motto they want here, that the team is the star."
A strong finish to the regular season and starts in all three playoff games has Williams hopeful of getting the call against the Galaxy, but win or lose, he's got ample reason to be grateful for reasons unrelated to soccer. His wife, Marcia, cleared a major hurdle in her battle against leukemia two months ago when her illness went into remission following months of treatment and a cord-blood transplant at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, located in, of all places, Seattle. For him, the atmosphere at Qwest Field is just one of many reasons to enjoy that city.
"It's the fans they have up there, too, they are just unbelievable," says Williams of what opposing teams face. "I like the fans here, too, but they take it to a different level up there. It's non-stop singing and cheering. As a soccer player, it's all you can ask for. That little corner in Toronto is pretty crazy. It seems like each new team tries to out-do everybody else. I'm not complaining. We need more."
So for many reasons, Williams has mostly good things to say about returning to that city, its fans, and what his team hopes to attain. His wife survived a scare during the summer when labored breathing promoted a rush to the hospital, where she was put on a ventilator. Since then, years of worry and anxiety have given way to optimism and hope.
"It's going OK so far," says Williams, who has also juggled duties with the Jamaican national team since his late teens and is the father of three children. "We still have a long way ahead, but we're kind of happy where we are at the moment. She's hanging in there."
In the 2003 final he came off with 20 minutes remaining to be replaced by Justin Mapp, and right after the substitution, San Jose scored. Six years later, pending a possible second appearance in the big game, he's bemused by one aspect of it, especially in light of the more defensive role he now plays.
"I get to play against Landon [Donovan] again," he laughs. "I'm like, 'Goodness gracious.'"