SANDY, Utah – Take a quick look around the Real Salt Lake locker room and it’s pretty clear there’s hardly anyone left from the dark days of the franchise.
In fact, it’s tough to imagine anyone is still around as RSL head into their Western Conference semifinal series finale against FC Dallas on Saturday (10 pm ET, FSC).
WATCH: RSL preview FC Dallas
But half a decade removed from when RSL was a struggling club that won just five games and looked lost on the MLS landscape, there is one man still standing: Andy Williams.
Sure, Jason Kreis is still there, the head coach since 2007 after he became the franchise’s first-ever player before the team played a game in 2005. But the only player still plugging along from the 2005 debut is Williams, who’s quietly tweaked his game and found success with the franchise he never thought possible.
Williams was taken with RSL’s first overall pick in the 2004 Expansion Draft, his sixth MLS team of a career that dates back to 1998. He sparkled with the Columbus Crew during his rookie season and later posted a career-high 15 assists when he split time between the New England Revolution and New York MetroStars in 2002, but winning just five games during RSL’s debut season was humbling for everyone involved.
[inline_node:322581]“We still have fans that will come up and say, ‘Oh my goodness, do you remember back when you guys first started here?’ It was bad, man,” Williams said. “And of course, I remember.”
Kreis, of course, took over in May 2007 and set his sights on rebuilding the franchise. Twenty of 22 players on the 2007 roster were gone by the dog days of the 2008 season, leaving just Williams and veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando as the only holdovers from the period most RSL fans would like to forget.
But make no mistake, Williams was just as expendable as the faces that were eventually shipped out. In fact, Kreis had to pull his veteran leader aside following the 2007 season and lay the hard truth on the Jamaican international, who had always been used as an attacking midfielder and not leaned on for much else.
Simply put, Williams had to lose weight. Kreis softens it now and simply says that Williams was a “little loose” when the 2007 season wrapped, but the message then was clear.
“I’d never seen Andy Williams fit. Never,” Kreis said. “He was going along as if everything was okay. He was relying on what he did well, rather than trying to improve on what other people thought of him. Was he capable of being a player who most people thought he was not?”
Williams concedes that point now, but was it really his fault? Coaches through the years had, in fact, largely penciled him in as a one-dimensional attacking player with remarkable skills on the ball and a knack for attacking soccer, but few required him to be a two-way presence.
“I was never brought into a team to do that. I was always brought in to be an attacking midfielder,” Williams said. “And if you were an attacking midfielder, you would just wait up top for the ball, and then hopefully do your magic But knowing Jason, he was always a fit player when he was playing.
“So he came over and told me that this was going to be a fit team, and if I wanted to be here, that’s how it was going to be.”
Williams has upped his offseason workouts each year since that ultimatum and bought into RSL’s dogged mentality focused on team defense. Kreis doesn’t need to teach him anything offensively, but Williams has picked some valuable two-way tools over the last few years that have helped him carve a valuable niche with the club and appear in at least 23 games each of the last three seasons.
“Once he was fit, the question became, ‘Now how many defensive plays can you make?’” Kreis said. “Now you see he’s no longer gifted just going forward, he’s made some tremendous defensive plays for us this season.”
“It was sort of one those situations where, ‘Whatever you want me to do, man, I’ll do it,'” Williams said.
Williams, 33, has been a valuable asset as a starter and a substitute this year, logging one goal and seven assists in 20 starts. He’ll certainly see some crucial minutes on Saturday as well, when Real Salt Lake look to reach the conference final for the third consecutive season and bury the memories of 2005 even further into the past.
“Every once in a blue moon I’ll have a moment when I look back and see how much things have changed,” Williams said. “It’s been an unbelievable run.”
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