Ed Williams still remembers signing to play for his first soccer academy. He was about 11 years old, and he was one of the youngest players in the Cheltenham Town academy.
“Back then, football was just something that I loved,” Williams said. “I still do, but I’m just trying to hold onto those memories.”
Today when he suits up for Rochester New York FC, he’ll be one of the oldest players out on the field. That means he’s had more opportunities to be a leader and mentor to the younger players on the roster. Early in the season he was named captain.
Williams understands that’s a role he needed to grow into.
“It's new for me,” Williams said. “At first it was different and strange, but it’s something that I really enjoy. I knew before coming here I’d be someone who has the most experience.”
Williams says his goal is to help the young players as much as he can.
“I try to speak to the boys as much as possible and help them using my experiences,” he said.
Those experiences began even before Cheltenham Town. They began with his grandfather.
“My grandfather was a massive football fan and he would take me to trainings,” Williams said. “My earliest memories are me and my mate going to practice in his van. He’s a builder so we’d get in the back and the paint would be moving around and everything. I still remember the smell.”
After spending six years in the Cheltenham Town Academy as a youth player, Williams bounced around the middle tiers of English football. He ended up playing for the Doncaster Rovers, but after only 12 appearances in two-plus years, both sides were hoping for a move. Eventually he was loaned out for the season here in Rochester.
The move to America has been a big adjustment for Williams.
“You can’t walk anywhere over here. You have to drive,” Williams said with a laugh. “Back home you just walk to the shop and get some milk and some bread or whatever. You can't do that here. That's impossible. I tried doing that when I first got here and I got caught in a blizzard.”
RNY FC Sporting Director Lee Tucker has seen Williams grow into his own in his time here. Tucker says it’s difficult for competitive players to experience as much time on the bench as Williams had at Doncaster, and he’s finally finding his stride for the Rhinos. He’s battled some injuries, but has started 15 games for the Rhinos and his play in the midfield has been crucial in Rochester’s run up the league table in the second half of the season.
“I think he’s enjoyed being the central part of a team after the last few years at Doncaster where he hasn’t played much football,” Tucker said. “He’s just grown into a really good leader in the team. His quality on the ball. . . he’s very technical, if you look at his touch, it’s among the best in the league. His understanding, his vision, his awareness, is just a higher level.”
Tucker believes it’s Williams’ confidence that has allowed for him to get back in form.
“He just needed games,” Tucker said. “He’s had two years of being in the doldrums and not playing, and that affects confidence, all those things. He’s slowly and surely got that back. He’s really enjoyed playing again. And once you’ve got passion and you’re enjoying playing, that’s when you’re playing your best football.”
Williams says the improved play is because he’s having fun again.
“I play my best football when I’m almost playing in the playground,” Williams said. “I like to make things happen.”
Now that he’s enjoying himself, Williams says he just wants to play at the highest level he can. He’s got his eyes set on the MLS.
“I feel like I’m confident in my abilities to do that.”
His focus is here in Rochester now, however. Just over a month ago, Williams’ loan to RNY FC became permanent when he signed with Rochester. Now that the contract is resolved, he’s got his eyes set on the MLS Next Pro title.
When asked about it, he was quick to go into Captain mode.
“I’m going to push to the level I think I should be and I feel like everyone needs to have that same mindset,” Williams said. “The only way to do that is to be successful and win, and we're all striving for the same thing.”
“We all want to be champions, so why not us?”