Richie Williams might just be the USA's most successful player who never played in a World Cup.
The New Jersey product was a defensive midfielder on what were perhaps the best MLS and college teams in U.S. history, both coached by Bruce Arena. He won three MLS Cups, a U.S. Open Cup, a Concacaf Champions Cup, and the Inter-American Cup with D.C. United, after winning NCAA titles with Virginia in 1989 and 1991.
After college, before MLS launched, he won a USISL title and U.S. Open Cup with the Richmond Kickers.
In his youth days, he won two McGuire Cups with the Union Lancers, whose head coach was Manfred Schellscheidt, assisted by Bob Bradley.
His 20 games for the U.S. national team included the 2002 Gold Cup title and third place at the 1999 Confederations Cup team, which included a stellar performance by Williams in a 2-0 win over Germany. But, at age 32, he was an uncalled alternate for the 2002 World Cup.
Williams launched his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater, Virginia, then moved on to MLS, where at the Red Bulls (nés MetroStars) he served as assistant coach and had two stints as interim head coach.
In 2011, he became the U.S. U-18 national team coach and the next year took charge of the U-17s and its residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
His first cycle with the U-17s went poorly as the USA, up until then the only nation to reach all 14 U-17 World Cups, failed to qualify.
U.S. Soccer gave him another chance, and on Sunday, Williams' team booked a ticket to the 2015 U-17 World Cup by winning a shootout tiebreaker after a scoreless tie with Jamaica.
It ended well, but did not go smoothly as Williams’ team followed up on three straight wins with a tie against Honduras and a loss to Jamaica that forced the nail-biting rematch with the Reggae Boyz in a playoff.
“People do not understand how difficult it is,” said Williams in quotes provided by U.S. Soccer. “I thought it was a great tournament. I thought we did very well, and I’m extremely proud of our players. They work extremely hard, they’re a good team. We had a couple setbacks, but they didn’t give up. …
“I’m extremely proud of the team, extremely proud of the whole group – our staff, everybody that has worked incredibly hard over the year-and-a-half with this group of players. …
“I love these guys. They’re great players, they’re great people.”
The USA hasn’t won a knockout stage game at the U-17 World Cup since the team with Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, coached by John Ellinger, finished fourth in 1999.
Williams, finally going to a World Cup, aims to end that streak:
“Now we go with all intentions to go and try to win the World Cup.”
‘We became more than friends’
Of the 20 players on the USA roster at the qualifying tournament, 15 got their first taste of the national team program with the U-14s and 18 played for the U.S. U-15s. A year and a half ago, Williams began preparing them to book a ticket to the 2015 World Cup.
“I think we became more than friends – we’ve been a family for the past year-and-a-half,” said Tyler Adams, the New York Red Bulls Academy player who played left back and defensive midfielder. “We worked so hard for this, all the preparation, and the huge process that everyone’s put into this is unbelievable.”
Joe Gallardo had recovered from a broken shinbone suffered in August to lead the team in scoring along with Joshua Perez with four goals.
“It’s honestly the best feeling in my life, honestly the best moment,” said Gallardo, who moved to Monterrey after being discovered by the Mexican club playing for the Southern California’s Nomads at the 2011 Dallas Cup.
Midfielder Alejandro Zendejas, who was signed by FC Dallas to a Homegrown contract last October, explained how Williams picked the tiebreaker shooters.
“Richie asked us who was confident, and so we raised our hands, and I was one of them,” Zendejas said. “I put the ball down and it took a while to get it settled. When [the referee] blew his whistle, the ball moved. So I stopped and once I saw it wasn’t moving, I shot it. I was kind of off balance but fortunately it went in.”
Defender Alexis Velela, who’s played for the San Diego Surf and Nomads, converted the USA sixth and final spot kick.
“There was a lot going through my mind,” he said. “I was walking up and was like, 'I gotta make this PK.' I wanted to forget about everything and just focus on the PK, and score. And I did. It was such a good feeling."
“And then we got together and we were just confident that [goalkeeper] Will [Pulisic] was going to come up with a big save. When the Jamaican player hit it wide, we just went running up to Will and celebrating because we had made it!”