JJ Williams, the University of Kentucky soccer standout whose breakout junior season helped propel the Cats to their deepest postseason run in program history in 2018, was selected in the first round, 18th overall by the Columbus Crew, during the Major League Soccer SuperDraft on Friday.
“I really can’t explain what it’s like being up here, having my dreams come true,” Williams said on the SuperDraft podium after his name was announced. “To all the young kids out there, to all of those who just see a big kid from Alabama, never settle for anything less than your dreams. ...
“I’m extremely thankful to the Columbus Crew. I promise you won’t regret this. Thank you and let’s get to work.”
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In the instant analysis of the pick on MLS.com, Taylor Twellman, an ESPN commentator and former U.S. international player, likened Williams to Crew forward Gyasi Zardes, the team’s leading scorer.
“Tell me who this sounds like, ‘he has soccer in him, but he’s very raw ... it’s Gyasi Zardes,” Twellman said. “Literally, you just got the understudy to Gyasi Zardes.”
Williams, a 6-foot-4 forward from Montgomery, Ala., scored 18 goals, third most in the nation, including nine game-winners for UK, who earned a No. 3 overall seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, its highest seed ever. Kentucky reached the Elite Eight where it lost to eventual national champion Maryland, 1-0, in front of more than 3,000 fans at UK’s home stadium, The Bell.
Williams also ranked third in the nation in points (a measure of goals plus assists) with 44 and was one of three finalist for college soccer’s top award, the Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy.
Earlier this month, Williams announced he would forgo his senior season in a video posted on his Twitter account.
“From the beginning of my college career to now, Big Blue Nation has been nothing but a huge blessing to me as a student, player and person,” Williams said in the video. “My next goal is to pursue a professional soccer career. I am honored to enter the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. I could not have achieved this accomplishment without the help of Big Blue Nation.”
Ahead of the MLS Combine in Orlando, Fla., this week, Williams was among seven underclassmen to sign a coveted Generation Adidas contract with the league. Generation Adidas players do not count against a team’s salary cap when drafted, thus easing some of the pressure on developing them into immediate contributors to the team.
Williams is the second player in UK history to be drafted by the MLS. Midfielder Napo Matsoso was selected in the second round (31st overall) by the New England Revolution in 2017. Matsoso has been on Louisville City’s roster since September. Louisville City is the two-time defending champion of the USL, American soccer’s second division below the MLS.
The Crew, rumored over the last couple of years as a team that might move to Austin, Texas, will remain in Columbus after a deal was struck late last year to sell the team to Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam. Columbus is one of the founding members of MLS. It won the MLS Cup in 2008.