Danny Williams, One-on-One: On USMNT frustrations and joining the club that broke his heart
How difficult was it to see your World Cup dreams fade when the U.S. failed to make it to Russia?
It was a really up and down year for me and if the playoff final wasn’t enough of a setback for me, along came the USA’s failure to reach this year’s World Cup finals. I had a good season at Reading, but I wasn’t given the opportunity to help the national team, which was really disappointing. I worked really hard when I moved to Huddersfield to get into peak condition for the new season.
We started well and I felt good and fit and strong. But then I went and got injured in the first half of the 1-1 draw against Leicester. I got a knock on my foot and at first I didn’t think it was that bad but then it was really painful and I was told I had to sit out another three weeks. So I was injured which was really annoying because I desperately wanted to do my bit to help my country qualify for the World Cup finals. It was depressing to see us not make it.
Do you feel as though you and the World Cup is something that’s just not meant to be?
I am not sure whether or not they would have invited me to the squad for the qualifiers even had I been fully fit. That is how life goes. That is how football goes. I got injured playing for Reading just before the World Cup started in Brazil in 2014 so I think I’m due a break. Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to move two forward. That is what happened when I was playing in Germany and left Freiburg for Hoffenheim.
There are always things in football where, as a player, you don’t really understand why things have happened and this is certainly the case here.
I have always had to fight for everything all my life. I have never been handed anything on a plate. I have never had an easy ride when it comes to football and outside the game as well. And that won’t change.
I felt quite negative but to see the boys fall at the last hurdle just made me feel worse. It was horrible because I know how much it means. That is behind me now. I am just focusing on my club. The best thing I can do is try to perform to the best of my ability and stay fit and healthy and see where that takes me. If I am picked again for the U.S., then I will try to prove to everyone that I can do the national team proud.
Overall, how do you reflect on your time thus far with the U.S men's national team?
It started really well for me when I was in Germany under Jurgen Klinsmann. I went on to win 10 caps or something like that in my first year after he called me up. But then ever since my move to Reading, for whatever reason, I wasn’t called up any more. I know we had some good games and some bad games, but if you look at my personal history with the U.S., I was on good form. We played a game against Mexico in L.A., and that wasn’t the best, which was frustrating because the game before against Brazil I scored.
I was always taught to get up early and work hard. I am from a normal working-class family. My dad worked at a McDonald’s restaurant when he first came over to Europe from America.
I kept thinking I would get my chance again and after I scored against Holland I was left thinking, ‘What else do I have to do to get my chance?’ There are probably fans who say I should have had 80 or 90 caps and probably ones who say I wasn’t good enough, for example in the game against Costa Rica and I know that as well.
Do you wonder why you’ve not won more international caps?
I know that issue all blew up recently when I did an interview when I was asked for my honest opinion as to why I have not played more, and it became a bigger issue than I could have expected. There are always things in football where, as a player, you don’t really understand why things have happened and this is certainly the case here.
Football in the English Championship is very competitive and the standard of players is of a high level even though it is the second tier. I made more than 150 appearances for Reading at that level and I felt very frustrated that I wasn’t being given the chance to prove myself at national level.
How did it feel to be welcomed back into the international fold by Dave Sarachan?
I was really happy when Dave Sarachan gave me another chance to play when we came up against Portugal and so I just want to go from there. To be made captain was a huge honor. It must have been the proudest moment of my entire [career].
I have been in and around the USA squad since I was 22, which is quite a long time but I didn’t realize what a big honor it was for me until I was handed the captain’s armband. It had a massive impact on me. I even got loads of messages from people who told me they were so proud of me. Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t play that day because it was the birth of his child, but it was a very, very special day for me.
Do you feel optimistic about the future for the U.S. men’s team?
There are a lot of good young players as we showed when we drew with Portugal. That game, against the European champions, showed that we have hungry young players with a lot of potential like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Cameron Carter-Vickers. We all have a point to prove. And we’ve got to do everything we can to get back to the 2022 World Cup finals. But yes, I am optimistic because we’ve got a good blend of youth and experience. The chemistry’s good.
And how important will Christian Pulisic be to the U.S.?
Christian Pulisic is an amazing player who showed in the World Cup qualifiers what incredible talent he is blessed with as well as a terrific attitude. I had a chance to play with him against Cuba and that allowed me to see first-hand what a great player he is and the important thing is that he keeps working at his game and steps up his progress.
He is very down-to-earth and is keen to improve. It just shows what can happen when you move out of your comfort zone like he did when he left America for Europe. He enjoyed better training facilities and was able to work with world-class players and that really develops you. He pushes himself. That was the same for me at Hoffenheim. It was a completely new experience and I was with players like Ryan Babel and Roberto Firmino and you have to step up. But it improves you. I am sure that Christian will make a big noise in the future for club and country.