Wilfred Williams is just 17 years old, but in an hour he can share a lifetime of experiences. And yet, he’s just getting started.
Born in war-ravaged Liberia in 1996, Williams bounced around with his family as a youth, eventually finding a home at the Buduburam Refugee Camp on the periphery of Accra, Ghana’s capital. Having escaped the fighting that ripped apart the country for decades, life was pretty good for young Wilfred and there was one constant in his life: soccer.
“For me, [the camp] felt normal, but it was actually fun, because all I did was play soccer 24/7,” said Williams. “At school [we’d play], first thing I wake up on Saturday morning, I’d go play soccer. I’d play soccer all day and come home.”
Playing mostly with older kids, Williams quickly honed his skills, but at age 10 everything in his life changed. Wilfred was given the chance so many dreamed of, moving to America. Initially, Wilfred settled with his father in Philadelphia before soon moving in the summer to Tennessee.
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“Back in Africa, everyone wants to come here and you see all these things on TV, all the movies and I was excited,” said Williams. “It was not exactly what I expected.”
Wilfred’s long journey finally found some stability with his uncle’s family in little Johnson City, Tennessee. Just over 40 miles from the North Carolina border, Johnson City combines with two other smallish Tennessee towns to form an area known as the “Tri-Cities” region of nearly 200,000 people. Things weren’t quite normal yet, but they were getting there.
“It was weird because I didn’t know the States,” said Williams. “I just knew I was going somewhere. It got settled down. I started school in sixth grade there. Two of my teachers came to see me before school started and they’re the best. By far I’ll never forget them, my favorite teachers. I will never forget the way they accepted me and the way they helped me out...I started going to school and then I made my first friend.”
The affable Wilfred quickly found some friends and re-discovered soccer. Much like the culture, the American style of soccer in rural Tennessee took some time to adapt to - the thought of orange slices and juice boxes certainly comes to mind. The youngster found a team, however, and began to finally get back to where he felt most at home, on the pitch. Early on, Wilfred played against Coy Craft, another current FC Dallas Academy member, in games that they both said would practically become 1v1 contests. It was there that the seeds were sown for a connection that would one day bring Williams to Frisco.
“Me and Wilfred started out playing against each other at a young age,” said Coy Craft. “It was usually me vs. him basically.”
“Wilfred would stay at my house if he ever needed anything. My parents love Wilfred, they’ll take care of him no matter what. That’s how it started.”
Seeking a higher level, Williams eventually joined forces with Craft at Fusion Futbol Club, a more regional Tri-Cities team. With his sights now firmly set on soccer, the youngster earned a spot on the state ODP team and eventually into an under-14 national team identification camp, a camp in which he moved from his customary forward position to left back for the first time, amazingly playing with Vernon “Bubba” Bailey and Patrick Khouri, two more current FCD U-18 players.
“I made the ODP team to go to national team camp. It was in Boston and I made the U-14 national team,” said Williams. “It all happened so fast, U-14 national team, and I was one of the best players in the state.”
Williams stayed close with Craft - possibly the two best players in the region in their age group - and in late 2011, Coy joined the FC Dallas Development Academy, playing his first official U-16 game with the club in January 2012. Six months passed for Williams and like so many aspiring young soccer players in the country, he knew that joining a team in the Development Academy was a must if he wanted to get in front of the eyes of major college and national team scouts.
Williams successfully tried out for another MLS club and made the roster, but before he made a decision Coy's father set up a tryout with FC Dallas.
“I was training and [U-16 Head Coach] Josema [Bazan] told me at the end of the week that he wanted me to come here,” said Williams. “It all happened so fast. I went back and told the club and they were happy for me.”
Wilfred couldn’t turn down an opportunity to re-unite with Craft, but there was a not-so-small issue. Williams loved his life in Tennessee, but it certainly wasn’t an opulent one. Finances were an issue as to whether he could follow his dreams to Dallas, but his club – his extended family, really – in Johnson City wasn’t going to let anything hold him back. FC Dallas TRI(a newly-formed coalition of youth clubs in the tri-cities area that became affiliated with FCD) organized a fundraiser helping to pay for Wilfred’s costs of living through his first year in Frisco.
“It was awesome because I’m not only coming here to represent myself, but represent my city because they believed in me and put everything into it for me, so I knew I have to do it,” said Williams who now, having graduated from high school, works at Chic-Fil-a to subsidize his living expenses. “I had a conference call with Coy’s dad and the coaches and they’re telling me how I have to focus and put away all the distractions.”
The move meant Wilfred had to grow up quickly in his new home of Frisco. The workload of two-hour morning practices five days a week before school was certainly an adjustment from the two or three practices a week back home, but things got normal.
On the field, moving to FC Dallas meant a full-time change from his customary attacking positions. While Williams could more than hold his own at forward in Tennessee, a move to a team the quality of FC Dallas meant there were certainly players bigger and better at the position. Coach Bazan saw the spark, however, and pushed him into an attacking left back role. Williams instantly embraced it, even if it was pretty rough around the edges.
“We can find a lot of forwards that are better, but at left fullback if he can sharpen those little things in the back, he has a lot of dynamic abilities and has a lot more chance to play pro in that position,” said Bazan. “The more important thing is that he loves the position, because you can’t put a player into a position that he’s not convinced. He has a lot of passion and enthusiasmo to play there.”
The first season with FCD was a trial-by-fire in his new position, appearing in 25 out of 30 games for the U-16 team which won the Frontier Division. He showed plenty of promise at the position, but was badly exposed in the final game of the season. Needing a result against Real Salt Lake’s U-16s to advance to Finals Week, FCD fell 6-3 to RSL in a wild game that saw Wilfred’s naivety in the position manifested on multiple occasions.
“They’re always telling me ‘watch your back, watch your back,' and coming here I didn’t know what that meant,” said Williams. “But it was kind of a wakeup call after the Real Salt Lake game. I got beat several times behind me and after that I started watching videos to protect behind me...I’ve worked hard and I’ve learned how to play the left back position. I feel like I’m a true left back and I embrace the role.”
Like any young player, however, the game was a learning experience and Wilfred has come back even stronger, evidenced by two major moments in the career of Williams that came last summer. In mid-July the young left back was called up to train with the first team. After training, Williams was informed that he made the match day squad for the July 23 Reserve match against USL Pro’s Antigua Barracuda at Toyota Stadium, a game that was streamed live online allowing many of his friends back in Tennessee to watch.
“I walked in and they had my jersey up and I realized it meant I was starting,” said Williams. “I was nervous and coach Marco [Ferruzzi] and Drew [Keeshan] told me my roles. Warming up, my legs got heavy and then we walked down and first touch I played it back and kept it simple. I ended up playing well in that game and after 10 or 15 minutes it felt normal. The guys made me comfortable and started talking so I was comfortable, it felt normal.”
Wilfred went on to make five appearances for the Reserve team in 2013, but took an even bigger step that summer, committing to play his college soccer at Virginia Tech University.
“They play in a good conference and they’re two hours away from home, so all my family and city are all excited for me,” said Williams. “I just want to be a part of that. I love the campus, it’s kind of like home.”
Before college beckons in fall 2014, there’s still a half-season left with the Academy as he further develops his skills at left back. There’s plenty to work on for Williams, a player that is coached very hard by both Bazan and U-18 head coach Luchi Gonzalez on the tactical nuances of the position as well as his passing accuracy.
“He’s shown a lot of commitment and responsibility off the field,” said Gonzalez. “We’re proud of him, but we want to keep him on his toes. We see he has a lot of potential. His ceiling is very high for him to continue to grow and learn. His desire to get better is the major reason we brought him to FC Dallas.”
Wilfred is also looking at becoming an American citizen next summer, something that would allow him to possibly make his national team dreams a reality. Williams was invited to a national combine at the Nike facilities in August, so there’s no doubt he’s on the radar.
With the hurdles Williams has cleared to make it this far, it’s tough to doubt the ambitious kid from Liberia via Johnson City. Plenty of the story certainly has yet to be written.
“I’m playing for a lot of people.”