Direct from Germany
On and off the Field, Danny Williams Fits in Well
The German-American United States midfielder is succeeding for both club and country. Brian K. Blickenstaff spends time with the young star at the Hoffenheim side he calls home.
BY Brian K. Blickenstaff PostedHEIDELBERG, Germany—It’s fitting that Danny Williams lives here. For one, Heidelberg is the closest large municipality to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, Williams’s club. But more than that, Heidelberg might be the most American city in Germany. The U.S. military moved into Heidelberg after World War II and never left. General Patton died here. The city once served as NATO headquarters. And today, there are still a handful of American army bases in the area. The town is bicultural, just like Danny Williams. Williams’s parents met in Heidelberg when his dad was in the military. As a youth, he played for a local side before joining the academy at SC Freiburg, in Germany’s Black Forest, breaking through to the first team in 2010. While he got his first taste of the Bundesliga at Freiburg, things weren’t always easy. “When I was playing for Freiburg, I have to tell you the truth, there were some times when I thought to myself, ‘How can I do this?’ because I didn’t have the standing,” he said one rainy afternoon at Hoffenheim’s training center in nearby Zuzenhausen. “When you’ve been in their academy, and then you become a professional, they don’t look at you the same as they would if you had been transferred from a different team.” It’s no surprise then that Williams has blossomed since his 2011 move to Hoffenheim. He seems to have plenty of respect with his new club. This season, he’s started nine of Hoffenheim’s 10 league matches, all in his preferred central midfield position. Similarly, while Williams originally played out wide for the U.S. national team, he has started the last four matches in the middle for Jurgen Klinsmann. “Everyone knows that I feel comfortable in midfield. But we have huge quality there—Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu, and Kyle Beckerman,” he said. “It’s big to play for the national team. I’m proud of it. So I didn’t complain [about playing out of position]. I got the chance to play [in the middle] against Jamaica for the first time, and I think I did well. From now on, I’m hoping to play defensive midfielder.” Although Williams has nailed down a starting position for his club, things haven’t always gone to plan, results-wise. In August, Hoffenheim lost 4-0 to Berliner Athletik Klub 07 in the Pokal, the country’s league cup. Berliner Athletik Klub plays its league football in Germany’s fourth tier. And in September, Hoffenheim lost its Bundesliga home opener 4-0 to newly promoted Eintracht Frankfurt. Before the season started, some pundits expected Hoffenheim to qualify for Europe this year, but the team currently sits 14th in the Bundesliga. Only recently has the club’s form started to improve, with wins over top teams like Stuttgart and Jones’ Schalke. “We have almost a whole new team,” Williams said. (Hoffenheim brought in 10 new players over the summer). “Of course they have huge quality, but I think it’s a process to learn how the other guys on the team play, and it takes time. Of course, in the Pokal, that should never happen, but it happened and I think we can only learn from that." Hearing Williams talk about Hoffenheim—saying things like, “Against these [weaker] teams we have to be smarter”—it's hard not to draw comparisons between the club and the national team. Although it was founded in 1899, Hoffenheim was in the fifth tier of German soccer as recently as 1999. Like Hoffenheim, the U.S. men’s national team has only risen to prominence in the last decade or so. Both teams can be wildly inconsistent in their play, looking as though they’re on the cusp of joining the elite one moment and appearing frustratingly inept the next. As relative newcomers, both Hoffenheim and the US National Team are subject to wild expectations and criticisms that often seem misguided. "What I don’t understand is when we win against [a team like Schalke], all the people say ‘Oh, it was a bad day for [Schalke]’—like it’s not our effort.” Williams said. “But when we lose, they’re laughing at us, ‘Oh Hoffenheim is so bad.’ But that’s the way it is." For his part, Williams only uses this criticism as fuel to learn and improve. And when he’s called out as an individual, his reaction is the same. “I have learned to accept it when I make a mistake,” he said. “That happens. The only thing you can do is to learn from it. Even right there in the game, you have to be professional. I can’t think about a mistake I made, when in the next situation I have to be there again.” Williams told me one of his biggest achievements as a player was earning his first cap for the US national team. He described the moment—in a friendly versus Honduras in Miami—as “very emotional,” not only because of its career significance for him, but also because when Williams had vacationed in Miami the previous summer, it was his first ever trip to the United States, and he fell in love with the city. “Everyone saw me as American. They didn’t know [by looking at me] that I had a German background or something, and I felt at home right away.” Williams is biracial (his father is African American), and he explained that “When I’m in Germany, it doesn’t matter where I go. Let’s say I go to a club. [Everyone there] will all see me as a foreigner. Like, ‘He’s not German,’ because of the way I look.” Williams made similar remarks in a recent interview with CNN, which he told me should be interpreted as more pro-American than it was anti-German. “Sometimes I think it’s good to be a German, because they’re more organized,” he said with a chuckle. He elaborated on the difference between American and German customs when describing his first team meeting with the USMNT. The German people are notoriously punctual, and Williams and the rest of Team USA’s German contingent showed up a few minutes early, as is the norm in Germany, but nobody else was there. “We were wondering, ‘what’s wrong? Where is the team meeting?’ The rest of the players came a couple minutes later. It was funny, you know? In Germany, everything is on time.” Brian K. Blickenstaff is a writer and a professional geographer. His work has appeared in Slate and other publications. He tweets @BKBlick.
November 19, 2012
November 19, 2012