If ever evidence is needed to support the value of Philadelphia Union’s partnership with the Harrisburg City Islanders, Sheanon Williams provided it on Saturday night. Williams started and played the full 90 minutes at right back in a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire, less than two weeks after joining Manager Peter Nowak’s side from the club’s USL PRO affiliate.
Williams may have simply been filling a void on the backline left by the injured Juan Diego González, but the impact of his first career start was felt nonetheless. The 20-year-old exhibited plenty of pace, enabling him to push forward on numerous occasions and track back in time to avoid being victimized by Chicago’s counter. After goalkeeper Brad Knighton lost a battle for possession with Patrick Nyarko at the edge of the box in the 65th minute, there was Williams at the near post to knock the subsequent service away from danger. The rookie’s throw-ins were also a weapon, with one rifle in the 10th minute nearly leading to a goal.
A natural attacker, Williams is still adjusting to life in the back, but Nowak was obviously pleased enough with his progress in training to insert him into the lineup for a critical Eastern Conference showdown.
“It was a game day decision and Sheanon did very well the whole time during practice with us and he can play this position,” Nowak said after Saturday’s victory. “Of course, with Juan being out right now with the injury (there was an opportunity). He was quite effective.”
“Sometimes the play is a little too fast for him, but he is very young and he is going to develop in the right way. He is a very young man and has good qualities. [Coach John] Hackworth knows him very well from previous years, and we are fortunate to add him to our roster with the cooperation of the Islanders.”
Hackworth is familiar with Williams from the U.S. Under-17 National Team Residency Program, where the youngster played in two youth World Cups for the United States: the U-17 World Cup in Korea (2007) and the U-20 World Cup in Egypt (2009). No experience could’ve fully prepared him for his first MLS start, but Williams more than held his own after playing a full season in USL-2 (which has since been merged with USL-1 to form USL PRO).
“The level is a lot higher (than it was in USL-2) and the play is quicker,” Williams told philadelphiaunion.com on Monday. “You just have to try to step up and try to get on the level with all the rest of the players and just be aware and do the little things right.
“(The first start) was good. It just took a little while to settle in. I started to get more comfortable as the game went on and started to get better.”
[inline_node:287138]Saturday’s start was the culmination of a smooth assimilation process, with Williams adjusting well both to the caliber of play in MLS and his new surroundings.
“It’s been really great,” he said. “The guys, they’ve all helped me out - just little things and giving me little pointers and everything. Everybody’s just been a real help; the coaching staff, the medical staff, everybody here has acted like I’ve been here the whole time. It’s just been great.”
Despite playing in the second half of a friendly against Chivas Guadalajara, nothing compared to seeing his name in the starting XI for a regular season match.
“(The technical staff) just put the names up on the board and my name was up at right back,” Williams said. “I was nervous and excited, but it was good to see that coach had enough confidence in me. It was exciting. We had a full house and everybody was really supportive and the Sons of Ben were going crazy like always so it was good.”
Adding a promising young player already capable of playing at a starter’s level can only be a good thing for a club that was stocked with young talent well before his arrival. What’s more, as well as Williams played on Saturday, his age and limited experience as a defender suggest considerable room for improvement.
“I’ve played forward for a lot of years and then got switched to right back (with the Union),” Williams said. “It’s been a pretty good transition and I’ve adjusted pretty well to it. There’s always stuff to work on playing out of the back, and being more comfortable on the ball is definitely something that I’d like to get better at and keep improving.”
With González’s status uncertain for Wednesday’s match against San Jose, Williams may soon receive another dose of on-the-job training. With one career MLS start to his name and no goals allowed under his watch, the second former Islander on Philadelphia’s roster is focused on helping his new club secure three vital points.
“We’re just trying to do the little things and trying to get shutouts,” he said. “That’ll give us a chance to get points in these next few games and, you know, we definitely need them for a push to the playoffs. Obviously we’d like to be in the playoffs fighting for the MLS Cup in our first year, which would be an amazing accomplishment for the team.”