Sheanon Williams learns to roll with the punches

By Ridge Mahoney

Sheanon Williams has been through enough adversity to handle a relatively minor injury, or so you’d think.

Yet getting back his game after missing the first month of the season to recover from a pulled quadriceps has been a test of his patience as well as his resolve. Williams, 24, hopes to make his fourth appearance of the season Saturday when the Union plays Montreal for the second time this season.

“That’s why the injury was such a problem for me, because now I’m starting off the season behind the eight ball,” says Williams, who is also battling Raymond Gaddis and Paulinho for time in the outside back slots. “Instead of having eight games under my belt I’ve played in two and a half. It’s definitely hindered my ability.

“First, I want to get back to where I was last year and from there I can start to implement things I wanted to in the offseason. The injury’s definitely a setback but a minor one I’ll get through and hopefully be back at full tilt soon.”

The Union got him back just in time for a busy stretch of games. Williams started for the first time this season two weeks ago against Real Salt Lake, and less than 10 minutes after halftime started the sequence for Philly’s first equalizer. He headed a loose ball into space, pushed it upfield and from his own half released Vincent Nogueira up the right flank. The Frenchman did the rest, carrying the ball into the RSL half to chip a diagonal cross that Andrew Wenger chested down and stabbed into the net.

Yet Williams also labored at times defensively in the 2-2 tie though he managed to finish the match. “I don’t think Sheanon’s a 100 percent yet,” said head coach John Hackworth a few days after the RSL game. “He’s a guy we know from past experience, like he did on Saturday, can gut out a performance.

“That’s just his competitive mentality and what he brings along with the experience. In reality, he still has a ways to go to reach his full match fitness. Our staff is working pretty hard with him.”

Four days later, Williams sat out a 2-1 loss in New York, and with another game following quickly he went the full 90 last Saturday as the Union tied Houston, 0-0. Despite spurts of encouraging play, Philly is in a funk with a record of 1-2-5. It has tied four of its last five games, starting with a 1-1 deadlock against Montreal March 29, which was the last game Williams sat out. Playing the same team after a brief interval can add difficulty to the task at hand.

“That actually for me makes the game even tougher because the other team knows you so well you almost don’t need to watch film because you know exactly what they’re going to try to do against you,” says Williams of relatively quick rematches. “Not many teams change from week to week about what they’re doing. It’s mostly focusing on your game and imposing what you want to do.”

The Impact is also playing for the first time this season in its regular home, Saputo Stadium, after opening with three games played at Olympic Stadium because of weather concerns. That factor will ratchet up the intensity, as will the fact Montreal (0-4-3) has yet to win this season.

“It’s funny that you mention that because we talked about that going over film [Thursday]. It will be a home opener for them,” says Williams. “They’ll be excited about it, playing on grass instead of the turf that I know everybody hates. It’s definitely a challenge for us and one we have to embrace.”

Montreal presents a particular challenge for opposing outside backs, since much of its game revolves around the flank forays of Justin Mapp and Felipe. They can stretch back lines or slash them open on the dribble to set up chances for poacher extraordinaire Marco Di Vaio.

“When we turn the ball over, they break so quickly and either Justin or Felipe is usually the focal point when they break out,” says Williams. “We need to be smart and conscious of where those players are. When the ball turns over we have to get back in transition quickly and do a good job of shutting down their counterattack.”

In 2013, Williams started all of his 32 appearances and placed second on the team with eight assists, some of them by his long throw-ins. Improvement in his passing and crossing pleased him but this year he wanted to sharpen his defensive instincts and not rely so much on blistering speed. The quad injury pushed back that process yet the same objective remains.

Playing right back against Houston, Williams attempted 12 unsuccessful crosses and completed only 56 of 84 passes (66.7 percent). He drew a caution for rolling on the ground after clashing with an opponent. Yet Philly posted its second shutout of the season and he feels played well enough to deserve more than the point it received.

“We looked at some of the stats from our last game, and Vincent completed 94 percent of his passes and as a team I think we completed above 80 percent, so those are games that we’re dominating and just not putting it all together,” he says.

Of his own career, Williams is grateful that it all came together eventually. He grew up in Boston attending a lot of Revs games, and got his unusual name from his mom, who wanted to follow in the tradition of children born on St. Patrick’s Day but didn’t like the name Patrick. Girls born on the day are often named Shannon.

“She changed it to Sheanon [pronounced Shay-nun] to make it more of a, if you want to call it, a masculine name,” he laughs “She’s from Trinidad, the farthest from Irish that you could be, but I guess me being born in Boston had a big influence on her.”

Lisa and Stephano Williams gave their precocious and talented son permission to attend the U.S. Soccer Under-17 Residency Program in Florida. He played at the 2007 U-17 World Cup and the U-20 finals two years later. In between, he left the University of North Carolina after his freshman year to try his luck in Europe. Trials at FC Twente and Wolfsburg failed to produce a contract, so he returned to train with Real Salt Lake and plot his next move.

“He did well with the U-20s, but he probably left school a little early and, like a lot of young guys, thought he could make that jump easily,” says Hackworth, a former U.S. youth coach who’d worked with Williams at those levels. “Lo and behold, he found it much more difficult. Just being one of his former coaches, he called me and I tried to help him find a place he could play. He went to Harrisburg City Islanders and became an important player for that club at that level. Because of that, he got recognized and we were able to give him an opportunity here.”

Philadelphia acquired Williams from its USL Pro affiliate in August 2010, and since then he’s played 103 MLS regular-season games. 

His return game this season, April 5 against Chicago, is the only MLS game he hasn’t started, which isn’t bad for a guy who dropped out of college and flamed out in Europe. He added another chapter to his personal saga by getting married during the offseason and regards the tough times as essential steps to where he is now.

“I definitely got humbled a bit and re-focused on what I needed to do to be where I wanted to be,” he says of the paths he took that didn’t pan out. “It took a little bit longer than I wanted it to, but everything happens for a reason. I found myself in a good situation here in Philadelphia and can look at all the unsuccessful tryouts and whatnot and see what I needed to do better to make the next team.

“My road was definitely tougher than some other guys, but I’m happy where I’m at and where I’m headed. You roll with the punches and do what you can." 

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