At this time last year, defender Sheanon Williams was still looking for his big break.
Playing for Philadelphia Union's USL affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders, the UNC product was hoping to find his way onto a Major League Soccer roster following an unsuccessful attempt to secure a contract overseas.
Now, the 21-year-old defender is enjoying a breakout season on one of the top defenses in MLS. His All-Star caliber play on the right side has helped the Union stay near the top of the Eastern Conference throughout the first half of the season.
Williams has been a big part of a defensive renaissance for Philadelphia. His ability to close down offensive threats, as well as push the ball up the flanks and launch long throw-ins into the middle of the opposition's penalty area has quickly transformed the former U.S. youth international into one of the league's elite defenders.
“He’s got a lot of tools. He’s smart, he’s got some speed, and he’s a good defender,” said midfielder Brian Carroll. “He’s also just playing really good soccer for us right now. It’s good to have somebody back there that is young and growing, but is also helping our squad out.”
Williams started his professional career in April of last year when he signed on with the City Islanders after trialing with Real Salt Lake.
Catching the eye of Philadelphia's technical staff in 19 games with Harrisburg, he signed with the Union in August.
The defender immediately made an impact, starting the final eight league games of the 2010 season and solving the revolving door conundrum at right back that had previously plagued the Union.
“[The call-up to the Union] happened pretty quickly last year at the end of August,” Williams reflected. “I was lucky enough to start playing right away; I know that doesn’t happen for everybody coming to a new team. Everybody here has taken to me very well and has definitely been a big help in transitioning from Harrisburg to the Union.”
Manager Peter Nowak is pleased with the progression of his right back, who has twice been named to MLSsoccer.com's Team of the Week this season.
“We all saw, even last year when he joined us, that he is getting better and better,” Nowak said in his weekly press conference at PPL Park. “When he came to us, he was playing as a striker, so it was a big move for him [to defense]. We believed that with his offensive mind and speed, that he would have a good season with us.”
Williams has been nothing short of outstanding, but he alone cannot be credited for the resurgence of the Union back line.
The signings of center back Carlos Valdés and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón in the offseason, a fine first half of the season from defender Danny Califf, and the play of Carroll in front of the defense have all contributed to the turnaround.
Williams largely credits his own rapid ascent to playing alongside a number of experienced veterans.
“All the veteran leaders on our team have definitely helped me become more of a pro,” said the Boston native. “You pick up little things from them that are invaluable. They have all been great.”
The admiration is mutual.
“He is a big part of our team and a great guy to have in the locker room,” said Califf. “He’s really come into his own this season.”
The success of the back line in the first half has left the Union with high expectations for the remainder of the season. Through 18 matches, the Union find themselves tied with the New York Red Bulls for first place in the East, with the Columbus Crew right behind.
What Williams lacks in experience, he compensates for with speed and positional awareness beyond his years.
His pairing with Valdés on the right side of the defense is a big reason why Philadelphia have been so difficult to break down. Despite scoring multiple goals in only four games this year, the Union are in prime position to make a push for the East title.
“We are taking it one step at a time,” said Williams. “We want to be in the playoffs. As of right now, we are fighting for the first spot, so we definitely want to do as best as we can going forward. We have a lot of goals to achieve in both the playoffs and beyond.”
Nowak went as far as to pay Williams the ultimate compliment, lobbying for his starting right back to be considered for a spot on the U.S. Men's National Team.
“When you look across the board at the right back position with the youth teams like the Olympic team, I wish that he will be considered for those teams and for the U.S. National Team as well,” said Nowak.
If Williams' career continues to progress at its current pace, he may hear his name called sooner rather than later.