‘Old’ Josh Williams continues to help the Crew as he recovers from stress fracture

On the first day of Columbus Crew’s preseason, as the team took the field for the first training session under new head coach Wilfried Nancy, there was a noticeable absence. Center back Josh Williams, the team’s longest-tenured player and fan favorite, was not present.

As training progressed Williams emerged into the bubble at the OhioHealth Performance Center but was not there to take part in the session. Walking by the gathered group of media, Williams was asked why he was not on the field. “I’m old,” Williams responded with a smile.

That day in February was the start of Williams’ 15th season in Major League Soccer split between two stints with the Crew, as well as time with Toronto FC and New York City FC. Earlier this week, Williams turned 35. The Akron, Ohio native is now the second-oldest player on the Black & Gold’s roster, two years younger than backup goalkeeper Evan Bush.

“I’ve just gotten older since then,” Williams said during a sit down with Massive Report this week when reminded of the early preseason interaction.

In 2020, Williams helped Columbus win the team’s second MLS Cup title, making 16 total appearances as one of the starting center backs in a shortened season. Over the last two years, the team has struggled, failing to make the playoffs in either season. However, Williams felt something different this year.

After the team parted ways with Caleb Porter, the head coach that led the Crew to that MLS Cup, Williams sensed a new energy within the group. Nancy and his staff arrived prior to preseason after leading CF Montreal to the postseason in 2022 and brought a different approach to the game, which has made the Black & Gold one of the surprise teams early in 2023.

Williams got to experience that firsthand in the preseason after he returned from his initial injury. He enjoyed the challenge of what the staff asked of the center backs, wanting the players to keep the ball at their feet and bate opposing attackers to try and win it back.

That is until he lost possession in a preseason game against the Houston Dynamo and suffered a stress fracture in his foot.

“This guy literally just stole the ball. It was one of the stranger plays in my career,” Williams recalled. “And he just stole it and like literally went off. And I tried to make an emergency tackle and my foot got caught under me… I felt it. And immediately when it happened, obviously the ego takes a hit, you’re a little embarrassed. But after the play, in my head, I remember thinking, ‘That could have been a lot worse than what it was.’ I think the adrenaline was kind of kicking in. I didn’t feel much of that then. Later in the game as it kind of stiffened up I felt that and then it just never felt the same after that.”

Wanting to be on the field under a new head coach, Williams tried to play through the pain. But at 34 years old, the body doesn’t handle injuries like it used to. Williams was day to day, taking pain medicine to get through practice but the defender realized this wasn’t sustainable. He got an MRI and it revealed a stress fracture.

Two months into the 2023 season, Williams is yet to take the field for the Black & Gold in a match as he works his way back to full health. It’s been a battle, both physically and mentally.

Each day, Williams arrives at the OHPC before the rest of his teammates to get one-on-one time with the trainers. He gets a workout in and goes through rehab. While the team is on the field for practice, he’s back in the training room.

This separation from his teammates has worn on Williams, a player who enjoys the time in the locker room as much as he does competing every day.

Josh Williams celebrates the Crew’s second MLS Cup win in 2020 at Historic Crew Stadium. Credit: Sam Fahmi – Massive Report

“That’s something I’ve never liked. I don’t like being away from the team like that,” Williams said. “So to me, I’ll always try to find little spaces here and there where I can go interact with the team and just try to — that’s where I feel like a part of being older on the team, it’s how can I still have an impact on the team, even though I’m injured off the field.”

As a veteran on the Crew, Williams makes sure to take time with the young players. He tries to give them words of advice based on his experience in MLS, both in terms of their game but also, and perhaps more importantly, the mental side. 

While Williams is happy to help the Black & Gold in this way while injured, the center back desperately wants to be back on the field and taking part in what has been a 4-2-2 start for Columbus. He’s watched from the sideline excitedly at how well the likes of Milos Degenek, Philip Quinton, Steven Moreria and Gustavo Vallecilla have adapted to the difficult things Nancy and his staff have asked of the defenders.

“I picture myself out there,” Williams said. “But at the same time, what I’ve noticed is that I think our backline has been incredible this year. With what other teams are asking their center backs to do and what we asked our center backs to do, the level that these guys are performing at I think is exceptional. So I mean, that’s a shout out to them as individuals, but also the training staff and all the coaches that help elevate them to that level.”

Some injured players would hope for an easy path back into the lineup when they return but Williams has a different perspective. As a player who has benefitted from injuries to get into the starting 11 – Vito Wormgor was lost early in the 2020 season, allowing Williams to be key to the MLS Cup run for instance – he wants everyone playing at a high level so he has to battle for a spot on a good team when healthy.

“I want to see us doing well. When my time comes, I want to be able to fight for a team that’s winning,” Williams said. “I don’t want to come back and we’re in last place. That means nothing to anybody. So to me, I’ve never been someone who wants anyone to do poorly if I’m not playing. That’s not who I am.”

At 35, Williams understands the opportunities to be on the field are dwindling. His focus is fully on getting healthy and playing, and likes to be where his feet are, but also admits he has given thought to what life looks like after his playing career.

Being around the game as long as he has, Williams has trouble envisioning a post-playing career life without soccer. Along with several teammates, Williams went through coaching classes thanks to former Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter’s connections a few years back.

This could be the route Williams chooses to go whenever he does end up hanging up his cleats.

“It’s definitely something that I don’t want to be caught off guard with. But at the same time, it’s a fact of life,” Williams said. “It’s undefeated. No one beats it. LeBron’s trying I think. But I’m looking forward to that challenge. I think being around Wilfried and his staff, kind of that whole aspect kind of excites me, because of the way they speak about it and the way they break down the game and the detail they go into, and the passion for the little things excites me. And that’s more of who I am. And I just see the importance of it.”

Williams has given thought to coaching in MLS, hoping he could stay with the Black & Gold. He’s thought about the Academy level and the college level. He’s also considered what life would be like doing something else and having his weekends free.

That decision will come down the road. 

In the short term, Williams will continue to work to get healthy, something he said he is still a couple of weeks from being. Once he’s back training regularly, Williams knows it will be a few more weeks for him to get up to the level of his teammates that have been playing and adjust back to what Nancy wants from his center backs. 

But even in his 15th year in MLS, even though he knows he’s getting “old,” Williams still believes he has more to offer this Crew side and wants to continue to show it both on and off the field.

“To me, it’s an exciting time and that’s the only way to look at it in my mind,” Williams said. “It’s exciting to have the guys playing like this. And with my game, I feel like I can maybe add something to this with how the coaching staff is asking the center backs to play. So we’ll see. I can’t wait to get back out there.”

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