The hard-nosed midfielder was a big part of Town’s resolve at St. Mary’s in the 1-1 draw, and feels his side did plenty to earn their Christmas stay in 11th place.
“You take a point at Southampton away. We recovered well from their goal and we deserved a point. It was a bit lucky but the shift the lads put in today I don’t think we deserved to lose. A few weeks ago against Bournemouth we should have been three or four nil up but then conceded two set pieces. Luck was on our side today.”
Town now is 2-1-1 in its last four matches, rounding back into form after a desolate run of two wins and seven losses. The promoted Terriers continue to sit more than a result above the drop zone.
A regular for Huddersfield Town, driving on their fairytale from midfield with his tattoos, pristine hair and beard and all action displays impressing Terriers’ fans, Williams is arguably in the best form of his career.
He is relaxed, confident and quick-witted as we caught up at Huddersfield’s Canal Side training complex in the center of the West Yorkshire town.
Why wouldn’t he be?
Williams, 28, is playing in his first-ever season in England’s top-flight after slogging away in the second-tier for four years with Reading before moving to Huddersfield in the summer on a two-year deal. He hailed their fans as “incredible” and saluted their start to the season as former USMNT forward and current Huddersfield coach David Wagner has them three points off the top 10 with the busy festive season ahead.
Despite their fine start to the season, Premier League survival is still the main aim and Williams has been a big part of the underdogs impressing in their debut season in the PL.
His fine form for Huddersfield has led to a return to the U.S. national team after a prolonged absence through injury and a combination of both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena not calling him up. And not only was Williams called up to the USMNT for the first time in over a year for the 1-1 draw with Portugal last month, he also captained the Stars and Stripes for the first time in his career.
Beaming from ear to ear, Williams is still a proud man over a month removed from that draw in Leiria.
“Obviously it was a huge honor for me. I didn’t realize how big it was in the moment,” Williams admitted. “I played the game, tried to lead like I always do but it wasn’t until afterwards I realized. It had such a big impact. I got a lot of messages from everyone. It was a really proud moment and that’s why I really enjoyed it, because you go from not being invited to being captain of the team. It was also because Alejandro Bedoya had a knock. He would have captained the team but I was happy to step in.”
Williams hasn’t had the luxury of stepping in for the U.S. for quite some time.
His last USMNT’s appearance came in the friendly against New Zealand in Oct. 2016 and although he thanked Klinsmann for giving him the chance to first represent the U.S. way back in 2011 (he was the first new player Klinsmann called up) he revealed he never felt like he was truly trusted.
“I get it, I had a few bad performances but maybe because I never felt the trust, you know? When I get a lot of trust, I pay it back with performances and I think that’s the same with every player,” Williams said. “If you have confidence from the manager and all the team, you can perform, and I just feel like I’ve never really been given that kind of trust. But that’s all in the past. I’m a bit more mature and older now and nobody can break me down that easy. I’ve shown people I can fight and I want to leave that in the past.”
Asked if he was ever given a reason for not being called up by Klinsmann again, or as to why he was not picked by Arena during his ill-fated 11 months in charge of the USMNT, Williams revealed some intriguing details.
“It was frustrating but nobody really ever talked to me or gave me a reason,” Williams explained. “I didn’t even know what the reason was, you know? Some people might have said ‘you only play in the Championship’ or whatever, but I think the Championship is still a strong league and I think you could see last year with Newcastle and even the teams down there now they are big teams, big, big clubs and good football players. I could never understand why I was invited because I think in the four years at Reading I did, basically, everything in my power to show the world that I am still on a good level and I can perform. Obviously I was a bit unlucky with injuries but in my opinion nobody really spoke to me.
“Some people wanted to play the MLS guys a little more but whatever, but Bruce Arena emailed me and said ‘you’re in the picture but I haven’t really seen you.’ And I thought that was a bit strange because you must know your players, don’t you? Especially because I am not 18. I was around the camp but I read something where he said the players Klinsmann invited were German-Americans, I don’t know what it was, but I felt a bit weird about it because I played on a high level for basically now eight or nine years. But again, I didn’t really want to say anything because, what could I do? I can’t influence if a manager likes me or not but I think we could all get a fair chance. It was a bit weird but hopefully now that I’m in the Premier League, that will change.”
Williams has moved from the suburbs of London to Manchester and is now very much in the PL circle. He includes Manchester City’s Leroy Sane among his close friends and sees him as “sort of a little brother” who he takes under his wing.
His play his developed from a true holding midfielder to being a two-way midfielder who chipped in with several stunning goals during his time at Reading. Williams’ position has changed and it certainly seems like he would be a valuable foil alongside Michael Bradley in the U.S. midfield in the years to come.
Back to the USMNT, does Williams still want to be a leading man for the USA moving forward?
“To be honest, you have to look at the U.S. national team at the moment and who is actually playing on a high level, I mean playing in Europe in the big leagues, there are not so many players,” Williams said. “In my opinion, as long as I play in the Premier League, get the minutes under my belt, I think I have every right to be a bit surprised if they don’t invite me. Again, that’s not in my hands. The only thing I can influence is my own performance and how I do with the team and hopefully that earns me a spot with the U.S.”
Williams sees a bright future not only for himself with the USMNT, but also for the band of young Americans coming through the ranks, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie in the Bundesliga.
The midfielder rose into the Bundesliga himself as a youngster with Freiburg and Hoffenheim, before moving to Reading in 2013, and he believes that both McKennie and Pulisic will lead the U.S. in the future, supported by a growing cast of young stars who played against Portugal last month.
“They’re playing a big part of the future. I got to play with Weston McKennie and there’s huge potential there but not only him, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta, I think they are all ready to be in Europe. Then obviously Pulisic is already a superstar in the States and he performs on a high level, when you see him playing against Real Madrid in the Champions League, that is top class and I wouldn’t be surprised if he soon got a move away from Dortmund. They will play a big, big part because they are a new generation. They are kids and I remember when I was that young. They are all hungry. They are all super excited. I think that’s what it is. They want to be hungry because they still want to learn something and they like the competition. They have a big, big part in the future.”
That said, the future for the USMNT doesn’t seem that exciting right now.
With the U.S. currently without a coach after Arena stepped down following the failure to make the 2018 World Cup, who would Williams like to see appointed as the next USMNT head coach and what qualities do they need to have?
He has a simple checklist: give everyone, not matter what league they play in, a clean slate.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a U.S. coach. It is international football. I think we should get someone who has experience and has proper ambition with a proper plan and doesn’t prefer and trust either American players or American-German players or just American-Mexican players. He should give everybody a fair chance,” Williams said. “He should look at how all of these potential players perform in their clubs and should really start from scratch. The U.S. is such a great country and not making the World Cup, it’s kind of like a scandal.”
Most would say that’s being polite.
The U.S. not reaching its first World Cup since 1986 has dominated headlines across the American soccer landscape for the past two months and with no coach, and outgoing U.S. Soccer president in Sunil Gulati, and big question marks over a host of veteran players, the USMNT is in dire straits and at a major crossroads.
Williams winced when asked if it hurt to watch on from afar as the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and pointed to some politics behind-the-scenes as a major reason for the USA’s scandalous failure.
“Of course it hurts. I am obviously 28 now. I saw that as an opportunity to make a name for myself again. I thought ‘okay, I am now in the Premier League and hopefully I get a chance to get called in and show what I can do.’ I think there are too many political things going on behind-the-scenes,” Williams said. “I wasn’t really close enough with the team for that amount of time so I can’t really talk, or give too much information, because I don’t really know about what happened.
“Obviously I spoke to the boys when I was in Portugal. Everybody has a different view. I heard from a few people that they tried to ‘market the MLS’ a bit more, in the [World Cup] qualifying games and get a name for the MLS. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about quality and bringing the best players and having a plan. That is it. It is not only the U.S. that failed. Holland failed. Italy. Chile. This is unbelievable. Something is obviously going wrong because other smaller nations, they are speeding up their process. When I look at Iceland, they are a small country but they are actually playing at the World Cup.”
As his star continues to rise in the Premier League with Huddersfield, Williams will no doubt become an increasingly important figure as the USMNT rebuild from a monumental failure.
He hopes other talented young American players follow in the footsteps of Pulisic, McKennie and Co. to test themselves among the best leagues on the planet.
“It is very important that you don’t lose the focus because at the end of the day the USA is such a big country with so many great athletes, there is so much potential,” Williams said. “When I see the young boys I played with against Portugal, I am sure there are more out there who are hungry and happy to learn and make the step to Europe to get out of their comfort zone and be successful. That is what it needs and what it takes.”
Few United States men’s national team matches are as weird as Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Portugal, a feeling that had little to do with a fairly exciting contest.
That’s because the game meant so little, yet meant so much. The Yanks are turning the page after a horrible World Cup, and did it with the failing ex-coach of the bunch serving as an in-studio host and most of its top players at home.
That led to some interesting conversations, including this one traded by PST staffers Nick Mendola and Andy Edwards during and after the match.
Nick Mendola: Alright, Andy, I’m going to go ahead and say it: For as much vitriol as I feel toward all of U.S. Soccer for ruining one of the precious World Cup summers we get during our time on this Earth, it was a really smart move to play almost exclusively kids on Tuesday.
The first half was fun, the players showed abandon and ambition, and there was a real zest from both sides. Putting aside the howler from Ethan Horvath and the inclusion of Bruce Arena in the pundits’ room, and I have to say that was actually, kinda, fun?
Andy Edwards: What good would it do, having all this “young talent” if we didn’t take the earliest possible opportunity to take a group players like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams (above), Kellyn Acosta and Matt Miazga and mold them into a cohesive unit? With all due respect to the “old guard” — the previous generation of USMNT regulars — there’s no reason in the universe that they should play a single minute in the next 12 months.
Rather than filling the cracks with youngsters who might not be ready, the “new guard” needs a year — at least — to grow together, before sprinkling in a handful of veterans around them. It’s that kind of entitlement and inertia that, in my opinion, resulted in so much complacency throughout qualifying.
NM: For sure. And that begs as a question before we go forward full throttle: How much vitriol are we allowed, and when does it have to stop? Because watching the World Cup is going to sting like a melon farmer, and the U.S. should always qualify out of CONCACAF.
With respect to an all-timer in Michael Bradley, when I see Kellyn Acosta delivering on his promise a lot better alongside Danny Williams — and let’s face it: Portugal’s B Team is better than T&T’s B-plus team — I get angry.
When I see Miazga — who did have an error — looking better than Omar Gonzalez — I get angry. Is this unfair? And if not, when does it become unfair? Sorry for the aside.
AE: I’m happy to let go of the vitriol and ill will for as long as I don’t hear any excuses from any of the offending parties — or until the former head coach pops up on television broadcasts and I’m forced to relive last month’s debacle again, simply at the sight of his face.
As my own aside: what’s that all about? We’re supposed to move forward under the watchful eye of Bruce Arena, TV analyst? I can’t think of anyone who’s less qualified to tell us, “Here’s what comes next,” and more likely to rehash the same tired debates and practices of the last decade which ultimately got us nowhere. Just like the squad need fresh faces for the long road ahead, the American soccer public needs fresh voices and ideas to challenge and elevate it. If asked again, Bruce, please say no.
Now that that’s off my chest, I’m ready to move on with the rebuild.
NM: When he was asked, “Would you change anything?” and he opted for “Well, we won the Gold Cup and then I called back those pesky guys playing in Europe” — right before calling his phone “the expert machine” as if to flip the bird at any fan who hasn’t managed a team — I almost climbed into my dryer with 1,000 pushpins and a gas can.
Andy, I seriously cannot go any further with this. We need to go back to the game.
So, Tyler Adams can play basically every position, Weston McKennie has more attacking nous than expected, and basically none of these dudes were afraid of the spotlight that came with standing on the pitch when the curtain raised for the first time after disaster?
That part, my friend, is awesome.
AE: Another topic…
It’s great that McKennie, Acosta, Adams, Miazga and a handful of other youngsters answered the call and largely showed well against Portugal, but an important deficiency remains: a secondary playmaker — whether it be someone central when Christian Pulisic plays out wide, or a wide man capable of either stretching the field wide or cutting inside to combine underneath.
The aforementioned bright spots are strike me as functional players in a side built around a strong spine, but lacking the flair and game-changing instincts that so many others lacked before them. It’s great that we have Pulisic, don’t get me wrong, but where do we find — or, do we? — him a suitable running mate?
NM: That’s a terrific question. I really wanted to see more of Kelyn Rowe, and Arena’s right that he probably earned a carryover nod from Gold Cup to WCQs.
But isn’t that the potential beauty of the next few months? You can give any number of players the chance to show they can be that guy, and USMNT matches also put guys in the shop window.
Again, we’ve got — weeping, weeping, nearly uncontrollable weeping — nearly five years to sort it out. The hope is that Andrew Carleton, Luca de la Torre, Gedion Zelalem, or preferably some veteran will fill that void. I like Rowe, but maybe Nagbe would shine with less defensive responsibility (I’m a lot lower on him than most), or Kenny Saief.
Also, only 1/4 kidding, clearly it’s going to be Clint “Our Pescadito” Dempsey. Speaking of which, where are we on the futures of Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, and Jordan Morris. How many of the three are parts of the next Hex?
AE: Well, Wood is 24, so he’s (hopefully) got two more full cycles as a key contributor. He has to be close to playing himself into a move to a slightly bigger team in the Bundesliga — you know, one that’s not in the relegation scrap every single year. For what it’s worth, he’d have been perfectly suited to play with the pressing and counter mindset of the midfield on Tuesday — much more so than Sapong, at least.
As for Altidore and Bradley, there’s clearly still a place for players with the amount of experience and talent. What there hasn’t been for the majority of their USMNT careers — and it’s hurt the program, in hindsight — is anyone to challenge their automatic starting places. That will, hopefully, change once they’re brought back into the fold, roughly this time next year. They’re capable of — and should be doing — much more than their last three years for the Yanks. With that said, if they don’t return with a renewed sense of motivation and gigantic chips on their shoulders, though, it’ll be very easy for me to say goodbye and move on.
NM: That’s the big question, right? Bradley might be the wrong example given that his key work doesn’t necessarily jump off the screen, but that’s — again, hindsight 20/20 — the reason you bring in outside eyes and not go with Arena 2.0. You invite Tata Martino, or Peter Vermes, or Eddie Howe, and they get the keys to the car. No, “Well he’s done a lot for the program.”
Don’t hire the personality for the personality. Don’t hire the guy who has an agenda. Hire the guy who is willing to put the best guys out there every time, who’s willing to be wrong every now and again.
One final question: You calling in Pulisic, Cameron, Wood, and the gang come January, or keeping up a similar “new” vibe for another couple months?
AE: I’m definitely calling in Pulisic and Wood — anybody under 25, really — during the first FIFA window of 2018. To me, it’s paramount that the new guys get reps alongside players of that quality. They’re the ones, after all, who’ll make up the majority of the squad in 2022, with a little bit of luck.
As far as Pulisic has come in the last 12 months, he’s still got a lot to prove and add to his game — as both a player and a leader. We know he’s a brilliant individual player, but his next for years have to be about making everyone else — players both his age and older, don’t forget — better. That’s a lot to ask of a 19-year-old, but he’s given every indication that he wants that responsibility and will hold everyone, himself included, accountable.
With all due respect to Cameron and a select few others, I know what they are at this point. If there’s a need for them to be recalled closer to 2022, I hope they’ll accept the call and make themselves available. But, in my opinion, every opportunity has to be given to younger guys — many of whom we saw on Tuesday — to make one of 23 spots their own. Wasting the next four years by constantly calling in players who’ll be on the wrong side of their primes in 2022 — a la Dempsey and Jones from 2014 to 2018 — would be the grossest mismanagement job this side of the just completed qualifying cycle. Let’s not do that.
NM: And part of that identifying the old guys. Danny Williams, especially as a man holding down a starting spot in the central midfield-driven world of the Premier League, took a large step in that direction on Tuesday. Now who will join him?
Player ratings from the U.S. national team’s exhibition clash with Portugal, the reigning European champions, and the first game of a very long four years as the USMNT rebuilds from the ground up with two eyes toward the 2022 World Cup…
GK — Ethan Horvath: 3 — Hit the above link to see Horvath’s calamitous howler. That ain’t a great way to begin your bid to take over the no. 1 shirt from Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. Subbed off at halftime, which was the plan before kickoff, hopefully Hovath’s confidence isn’t too badly damaged without the chance to redeem himself immediately.
RB — DeAndre Yedlin: 6 — The best thing that can be said of Yedlin is this: you know what you’re going to get from him every time he steps on the field these days, and that’s something you couldn’t always say of the 24-year-old. He’s a constant presence and performer, and should have the right back spot locked down for much of the next two World Cup cycles.
CB — Matt Miazga: 6.5 — The best part of Miazga’s game is how quickly he reads, and reacts to, dangerous situations. There’s no one in the player pool who defends on the front foot as much as Miazga. As such, he’ll always require a partner who’s a brilliant emergency defender, which is hardly the strength of John Brooks, given his size and lack of recovery speed.
CB — John Brooks: 6.5 — Seeing Brooks on the field after three months out with a thigh injury only served as a reminder that his presence might have made a massive difference last month — not that they shouldn’t have been able to qualify without him, mind you. According to recently departed head coach Bruce Arena, Brooks and Miazga could have very well been the starting duo in Russia; with any luck, the same will be true of Qatar in four years’ time.
LB — Eric Lichaj: 5.5 — While Lichaj is somehow, against all odds, still only 28 years old, he’ll be 32 years old when the next World Cup begins. If he’s called into the next two or three USMNT camps, we’ll take serious the possibility he’s an option in the medium- to short-term. Until then, he’s starting at left back simply because someone has to.
CM — Danny Williams: 7 — With the leash cut all the way off of Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta ahead of him, Williams had but one job against Portugal: protect the backline when the youngsters’ press is broken. It happened on a few occasions, and Williams put out the majority of those fires. It’s a trio that lacks a true playmaker — the sexy factor, if you will — but proved highly functional for the 84 minutes they shared the field.
RM — Tyler Adams: 6 — Adams, uh, struggled in the first half (see passing chart, at right — that’s a whole lot of red arrows). He started the second half of his USMNT debut much brighter, though, as he got on the end of Danny Williams’ cross to the back post and forced Beto to make a spectacular, sprawling save. Adams is still a player with a “permanent position,” thus an important period of his development lies directly ahead. In 2017, we saw him play at least one game at all three levels wide on the right, in central midfield, and the based of the midfield.
CM — Weston McKennie: 8 — The 19-year-old Schalke midfielder 1) scored a goal on his debut; 2) smashed the crossbar with a header from close range; and, most importantly, 3) provided a bit of renewed excitement around the USMNT. McKennie and Acosta proved a formidable central midfield pairing, capable of pressing high up the field and pushing the tempo. Where they struggled, however, was in unlocking further advanced attackers into the final third. That will, in theory, come with time and repetition — two things the USMNT has in abundance over the next 18-30 months.
CM — Kellyn Acosta: 6.5 — Acosta and McKennie had very similar games to one another, with the obvious exception of McKennie’s goal and near-goal. Given that Acosta is three years McKennie’s senior, you’d have hoped to see a bit more connectivity from his side of the field. Alas, no such luck in this one.
LM — Juan Agudelo: 5.5 — The good: in his 59 minutes on the field, Agudelo misplaces just three passes. The bad: not a single one of his 15 completed passes was played in the forward direction (in fact, not a single one of his 18 attempted passes was played forward). He’s already a tough fit on the wing further forward; playing the 24-year-old (yes, really) even deeper seems an impossible exercise to assess.
FW — C.J. Sapong: 5.5 — With the midfield set up to create turnovers and chances on the counter, Sapong’s physical presence and accompanying hold-up play was hardly a perfect fit, but he made the most of his very limited opportunities.
Sub — Bill Hamid: 6 — Only forced to make two saves — both routine — in his 45 minutes on the field, Hamid managed to avoid hurting his stock.
Sub — Cameron Carter-Vickers: 5 — While Miazga’s strength is the speed with which he reads the game, the polar opposite must be said for Carter-Vickers, thus he’s not terribly suited to play alongside Miazga. Hopefully this isn’t the last time we see them play together.