Editorial (January 11, 2019) — Friday capped a rather busy week for the Columbus Crew. Two days earlier, the club formalized its new era with a press conference that officially introduced the Haslam/Edwards ownership group as well as president Tim Bezbatchenko and manager Caleb Porter. Then came the MLS SuperDraft, one of the first roster-building opportunities for the new regime.
The Crew had just a single pick over the course of the first two rounds of the draft which transpired Friday. They dealt their second-round pick to the Colorado Rapids in December of 2017 to acquire Mike Grella. That left them with the 18th overall pick in this year’s draft which they used to select forward JJ Williams out of the University of Kentucky.
'Bama ➡️ Kentucky ➡️ Columbus
— The Crew (@ColumbusCrew) January 11, 2019
JJ Williams Bolsters a Dynamic Columbus Crew Attack
Williams put together a hugely impressive campaign for the Wildcats in 2018. He started all 22 games the team played in and tallied 18 goals which ranked third among all Division I players. He also added eight assists for a team that lost just one regular season game, won the Conference USA title, and earned a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament. For his efforts, Williams earned first-team All-American and conference player of the year honors.
“I’m really blessed to be a part of the Columbus Crew,” Williams said after the team selected him. “And really making something special. I think we can do something really special in Columbus. I’m thankful for that whole process. And from the MLS standpoint, they provided a great experience this week with the Combine and they gave us all of this, so I’m really thankful for that.”
The Montgomery, AL native stands at 6’4″ and 200 pounds, giving him the frame of a classic target forward. But he’s not completely dependent on service from his teammates. Williams does a great job creating himself with the ability to dribble past defenders. He’s also an adept finisher as his goal-scoring total from last season indicates. His skill set hints at him excelling as a false nine with him being able to sit in deeper pockets with the aim of drawing defenders out of their shape.
More Goal-Scoring Help Behind Gyasi Zardes
Adding Williams certainly bolsters the team’s depth at striker. Of course, the team is led at that role by Gyasi Zardes who earned MLS Comeback Player of the Year honors last year with a season that served as a career revival. After managing just 15 goals in his final three seasons with the LA Galaxy, Zardes managed a career-high 20 across all competitions in his first year with the Black and Gold. It’s led to his former club manager Gregg Berhalter calling him up to the USMNT for the first camp of 2019.
The other prominent striker on the 2019 Crew roster is Patrick Mullins. Like Williams, Mullins was one of the nation’s top goal-scorers coming out of college. He won the MAC Hermann trophy in both 2012 and 2013 and led the nation in scoring as a senior with 19 goals. The two are also similar in that both are first-round picks in the draft as Mullins went 11th overall in 2014 to the New England Revolution. Mullins made 14 starts as an MLS rookie, tallying four goals and an assist.
The Coming Challenge
It remains to be seen how much Williams will contribute right off the bat. Of all the major North American team sports, the MLS SuperDraft is, without a doubt, the biggest crapshoot. And with teams prioritizing academy players along with the acquisition of largely international talent via targeted allocation money, making an impact as a draftee continues to be a challenge. But Williams can look at another Porter draft pick, Jeremy Ebobisse of the Portland Timbers, as an example to try and emulate. Over his two seasons with the team, Ebobisse has become a regular contributor and has even received a USMNT call-up.
The next step for Williams is making a name for himself during the preseason. His first opportunity will come during the opening preseason camp which gets underway in Chula Vista, CA in late January. The Black and Gold are also participating in the Carolina Challenge Cup in Feburary, a tournament they won last year.