[CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Midfielder Andy Williams is one of many key players who has adapted his game with Real Salt Lake, which plays Monterrey of Mexico in the Concacaf Champions League finals Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel) at Rio Tinto Stadium. He played with Williams in Chicago, yet not until he became an assistant coach with Real Salt Lake did C.J. Brown learn some vital facts about his former teammate.
Their age difference, for example. Both started their MLS careers in 1998, and Brown, 35, couldn’t believe Williams is two years younger.
“What killed me is that I thought he was older than me, but I guess not,” said Brown, who ended a 13-year playing career with the Fire last October and early this year replaced Robin Fraser as an assistant coach to Jason Kreis.
“He’s been playing forever. And he doesn’t look old, he’s doing his job, he’s out there working hard. He’s creating goals, he’s taking fouls, he’s winning balls, he’s running around. He’s ageless right now.”
In his first seven seasons, The Ageless One played for five teams, and passed through New England twice. After his second season with the Fire, the team exposed him in the Expansion Draft and Salt Lake made the claim. He’s been in Utah ever since, and in the past few years under Coach Jason Kreis the former Jamaican international once ranked among the league’s trickiest and streakiest players has ripened into a mature, two-way veteran who isn’t flustered if he fails to start.
“No it doesn’t matter if you’re on the bench,” says Williams, who started 20 of 30 games last year and ranked second on the team to Javier Morales with seven assists. He’s played two of four league games this year and scored one goal.
“I think we have maybe 18 guys who could start on any MLS team," Williams said. “Our starting XI is pretty tough and we don’t have any guys getting pissed off. If they’re not starting, they know they’ll be getting in at some point. Garth [Lagerwey] and Jason have gone out to find players who put the team before themselves. It’s worked wonders and we’re pretty grateful of where we’re at.”
His chances of starting in the second leg of the Concacaf Champions’ League finals Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium are enhanced by the suspension of midfield captain and linchpin Kyle Beckerman. In the first leg Williams replaced Ned Grabavoy in the 61st minute and played solidly in the middle as both teams scored a goal to yield a 2-2 tie.
“The runs that their midfielders make, and the connection with the forwards as well as the back line, is much, much better than what we see in MLS,” says Williams. “It’s different. We got lucky a couple of times down there defending against them, but we made some good plays and it kept us in the game.”
Grabavoy is the leading candidate to replace Beckerman for the decisive match, so it might be Williams who gets the call in midfield along with Morales and Will Johnson. As the team’s longest-serving player whose wife’s battle with cancer unified the community and helped bond it to the soccer team, Williams has a devoted following at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“He’s an important player for us, home or away,” says general manager Lagerwey, “but he just seems to respond to the crowd and the environment at Rio Tinto. They all know him and know the story of his wife and some of them probably worked on her behalf when she was going in for treatments and going back and forth to the hospital. There were always people calling our office, offering to drive her somewhere or look after the kids if she and Andy had to go somewhere, organizing the bone-marrow drives. It really is a remarkable story.”
Thankfully, for Williams and his family the main story has turned back to that of a professional soccer player. When Marcia Williams was diagnosed with AML type 6 leukemia, RSL and the community spurred a search for a bone-marrow transplant match that spread across the country. Brown’s wife Kim, a close friend of Marcia, aided the cause in Chicago. Last year, a match was found in Seattle, and a Sounders FC fan became the donor who gave her a real chance of recovery.
“She still has a few issues that we deal with,” says Williams of bouts with pain, nausea, headaches, and dizziness. “She’s cancer-free, that’s the most important thing. She’s still on the road to recovery, not 100 percent by no means, but we can tackle some of the other stuff. It’s always a challenge, but we’re grateful. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue.”
Despite health problems, according to her husband Marcia Williams has only missed one game played at Rio Tinto, and doesn’t plan to miss this one.
“She’s a die-hard fan, she goes to every game,” laughs Williams. “The only game she missed was when she was too sick to come. Some people say she’s our lucky charm; the team has never lost with her there.
“She has problems that keep popping up so she goes in to take care of them. It can be trying sometimes, but the doctors consider her cured of the cancer. It seems like every few weeks something comes up but her doctors call her their ‘miracle baby,” so we deal with it.”
If RSL completes its miraculous run, Williams believes the thrill of winning the 2009 MLS Cup in Seattle won’t come close to lifting a trophy at Rio Tinto, where the team is unbeaten in the last 37 games and can prevail by winning or tying 0-0 or 1-1.
“If we win it, being at home, it’s going to be 10 times better than Seattle,” says Williams, who played the full 120 minutes and was one of two RSL players to fail in the shootout that RSL won, 5-4.
“Tickets for the game didn’t go on sale at all publicly, our season-ticket holders bought the tickets. There’s been a lot of press and media at practice and you feel it just walking around town. I went to the store and I saw this cashier I’ve been seeing all the time for the past two years and she never says anything about soccer. Today she says, ‘Good luck Wednesday.’ It’s everywhere, it’s taken over the town.”