LONDON — Sat in a coffee shop down by the banks of the River Thames in London, England, life is treating Danny Williams pretty well.
There is however one burning desire eating away at the ambitious German-American midfielder as we chat: he wants to play in the Premier League.
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At Reading for the past three years, the 27-year-old came close to making the Championship playoffs in his debut season in England but the last two campaigns have been disappointing for the Royals as they aim to get back to the top-flight.
After starting his career in Germany’s top-flight with Hoffenheim, Williams feels he’s now entering his prime and is ready to push into the PL.
“When I first came here to England I said I wanted to help Reading get back to the Premier League,” Williams said, fidgeting as he lent back in his chair. “We missed the playoffs in the first year by one goal and I was in form back then and then I had a knee injury so I missed the last three or four games of that season.
“The last few seasons we’ve failed with that ambition but I’ve always said it to everybody, my ambition is to play at the highest level in the world. I was fortunate enough to experience the Bundesliga which is a great division to play but the Premier League, which kid doesn’t want to play in the Prem, you know? I would be lying if I say that I want to play in the Championship all the time. I’m too ambitious for that.”
He’s had strong looks from Swansea City in the January transfer window earlier this year, plus he’s been linked with moves to other Premier League teams but Williams is remaining focused on the here and now.
“What has been said in the press, there is always a lot of speculation, especially when you only have a year left on your contract and all these kind of things,” Williams said. “My goal is just to focus, to stay healthy and stay fit and last year I played 46 games. When you stay fit everything else will come together.”
More of a combative, holding midfielder during his days in the Bundesliga, Williams has transformed his game in recent seasons to become a more traditional box-to-box midfielder.
“I’ll do whatever the manager wants me to do but for myself, I think I have too much energy to just be sitting in front of the back four and to tackle and pass the ball to other plays,” Williams said. “I see myself being able to influence the game a bit more with box-to-box runs. There’s a reason why over the last two to three years managers have seen me as a box-to-box midfielder because they are experienced managers. My best position is No. 8 where I can be a bit more involved in the attacking and also going back. Hopefully I get some more chances this year to prove that.”
[ VIDEO: Williams scores screamer vs. Brazil ]
Last season he scored six goals, the best haul in one season in his career, and he’s ready to score even more this season to push Reading on. New Reading manager Jaap Stam has used Williams in midfield in a 4-3-3 system and he’s counting on the U.S. international to be a leader for the Royals this season. Of the current squad only three players have played for Reading more than Williams has over the past three seasons as he’s become the energetic hub of their midfield.
“I always wanted to be more of a threat in front of goal,” Williams explained. “Since I move to England, people have seen me as a box-to-box midfielder. In Germany I had played in a more defensive role and for the national team as well. In Reading I have the freedom to go box-to-box and I told myself ‘if you want to be a box-to-box midfielder you have to add goals.’ So I worked hard on that in the training ground. I could have had a few more but six was alright…”
Sipping on a milky latte and smiling with his heavily tattooed arms crossed, Williams had just been dashing around central London prior to our chat. He’s relaxed and happy with life off the pitch as the man from Karlsruhe loves living in south west London, a close commute to Reading.
With new manager Stam in charge this season at the Madejski Stadium, Williams revealed he’s been impressed with the legendary Dutch defender in the short time he’s got to spend with him on the training ground. They will aim to keep the ball and with a young team they’re an unknown quantity. This weekend they kick off their Championship campaign against Preston North End as the grueling 46-game season begins in England’s second-tier.
“We are kind of like the underdogs this season,” Williams said. “Compared to three years ago when Reading had money to spend, everybody is a bit unsure as to what the season will bring but that is a good thing. Players are ambitious, we have a lot of young players and I hope that we are going to do well especially at the beginning of the season because that gives young players confidence.”
After runs to the FA Cup semifinals and quarterfinals in the past two seasons, it’s clear the makings of a good team are present at Reading. But in a league which now boasts fallen PL giants Newcastle United and Aston Villa, plus the likes of Norwich, Brighton, Leeds United, Wolves and many other huge clubs with large fanbases, getting out of the second-tier is increasingly tough.
Should Reading consider themselves among the favorites to reach the promised land of the Premier League?
“After the last two seasons we can’t say we are one of the favorites,” Williams said. “Obviously the long-term goal of the club is to be back in the Premier League and the club has all the conditions and facilities to be in the Premier League. After the last two seasons which were very disappointing, I think we should lower the expectations a little bit and we shouldn’t put as much pressure on ourselves. We have a lot of young players so I don’t know how they will deal with the pressure of saying ‘okay, we are going to go straight up.’ That’s a bit unrealistic. We have to take it game by game. Every year in the Championship there is one surprise team. Look at Brighton last year who fought against relegation the year before and then finished in third. If we are that team this year then that’s great.”
[ VIDEO: Williams rifles home beauty for Reading ]
On the international stage Williams has made 19 appearances for the U.S. national team since 2011 but in the past 12 months he’s had some ups and downs with the USMNT. From scoring a stunning goal in the USA’s incredible 4-3 friendly win against Holland in Amsterdam in the summer of 2015 to netting a peach against Brazil in another friendly, the past few months have been tougher.
Called up for a training camp in Miami in May and then appearing in a friendly against Puerto Rico, Williams was left out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad for the Copa America Centenario in the U.S. this summer with the likes of Perry Kitchen, Kyle Beckerman and Darlington Nagbe selected ahead of him.
Williams admitted it hurt to watch on from California as his teammates made the final four without him.
“I followed it and watch it with my friends and everything. It obviously kills you when you are not involved,” Williams said. “It kills you. In 2014 I missed the World Cup due to a knee injury and then in 2016, I would say I did enough to maybe be selected and be in the squad. Like I’ve always said, the Championship is not a bad league. It is really, really tough. I played a lot of games and was in really good shape and I felt like I could really help the team.
“I was a bit sad that I didn’t get a chance to help the team but that’s the decision of other people and it is not in my hands. That’s why I say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There is 2018 around the corner anyways, so I just have to stay healthy and look to get my spot with the national team.”
With the USMNT having two 2018 World Cup qualifiers coming up in September, Williams is aiming to have a bright start to the season and get in Klinsmann’s squad.
“As a player you want to play in every game, especially for the U.S. The nation is just unbelievable,” Williams said. “I know a lot of players there really well. They are friends and it is always good to be with the national team. I made my debut about five years ago. I’ve been there for a long time. I would love to be involved in these World Cup qualifiers but like I said it is not in my hands. I will try to play well, stay fit and add more goals but at the end of the day it isn’t my decision. You have to work hard and see what happens.”
The plan for Williams’ future in England is a little more clear cut. With one year left on his contract at Reading, now is his time to make the step up.
“When you’re 27 you are not too old, you’re not too young. When I look back I would say before I was maybe a little bit naive,” Williams said. “Now you know your body better, on the pitch you deal with situation’s different than when you were younger. You definitely know what you have to do to be the best you can be on the pitch. I feel like I am in my prime.”
Reflecting on his career path to date, Williams is hungry for more while he’s in his prime.
“I’m hungry for more because I am not playing at the highest level… yet,” Williams said, with a smile on his face. “I’m happy with the education I had in Germany because that helped me a lot. Germans are always good technically and tactically. That has helped me a lot. So does growing up playing with players who are now in the Champions League. That’s a good thing. I can sit here and talk about them and see them playing in the Champions League… but I don’t play there. So, it’s about me now and what I want to do for myself.
“I am ambitious enough to get even better, to stay hungry and to move higher up. That’s what I’m aiming for at the moment. Some players do their head in because they look too much at what their friends are doing and saying ‘why is he there and why is it not me?’ I am happy with my choices I made. I love it in England. I am fortunate enough to live in London at the moment. I am settled here now and I am just looking forward to the season.”