It's been a long road to starting for the Columbus Crew for both Eric Gehrig and Josh Williams.
Overlooked coming out of Horizon League universities, there came a point when both pondered if they would ever play professional soccer.
Upon finishing his senior season at Loyola-Chicago and earning his third straight All-Horizon League First Team honor, Gehrig went undrafted in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. The Schererville, Ind., native earned an invite to preseason with Kansas City, but failed to catch on with the club. Gehrig went back to Chicago to finish his degree and after graduating in the summer of 2010, decided to give professional soccer another shot. The defensive midfielder/defender caught the eye of Crew assistant coach Ricardo Iribarren at a combine in Omaha, prompting Brian Bliss to place a discovery claim on Gehrig. As he says, "The rest is history."
"It's easy to get discouraged. I got turned away in K.C. I could have hung it up and that would've been that," the 24-year-old said. "I never thought (playing in MLS) was something I couldn't do. I knew the odds were against me. I just knew if I put the work in and did the right things, it would work out for me and it did."
Similar to Gehrig, Williams went largely unnoticed following four years at Cleveland State. Following his senior season, in which he tied for the team scoring lead with six goals, the defender spent the 2010 USL Premier Development League season with the Cleveland Internationals. Though he was playing regularly with his hometown club, Williams knew playing in the fourth division of soccer in the United States wasn't a means to earning a living.
"That was tough, especially because I didn't get pretty much any looks out of college,” Williams said. “Going back and playing PDL, I always knew I could play at this level. It was just a matter of getting a break here or there or someone seeing me. I definitely didn't want to give up, but at the same time you're kind of thinking, 'How long can I play PDL for after college?' It was tough, but I always believed in myself and I always wanted to keep going and give it all I had."
When a roster spot unexpectedly became available on short notice just before the roster-freeze date in September of 2010, the Crew signed Williams after he showed well in a Reserve League appearance. Five months later, Gehrig packed his bags for Columbus as a Discovery Signing before the 2011 preseason camp.
Having played against each other throughout their college careers, both players were excited to have the opportunity to play with each other professionally.
"As soon as I heard (Gehrig) was coming on the team, I was glad I'd get a chance to play with him. We bonded and hit it off right away," Williams said. "We respected each other's games. We liked playing against each other and with each other. As soon as he got into training camp, we bonded."
"Right off the bat, I knew he was a good player,” Gehrig said of Williams. “He wasn't one of the easier players I had to play against. Every time we played against each other, it was a good battle. It's pretty crazy how it worked out. Josh and I have become close over the past year-and-a-half."
In 2011, neither Gehrig nor Williams saw much first-team action with the Black & Gold. Gehrig appeared in eight League matches, four of those being starts, as well as a start in the Crew's lone U.S. Open Cup match. Williams, on the other hand, only saw action in two matches of Columbus' CONCACAF Champions League campaign at the end of 2010.
However, it was the Reserve League where the two built a chemistry and showed their value as a combo in central defense, leading the Crew to the 2011 MLS Reserve League East Division title.
"Last year we had a great pairing together in the Reserve League. We played good soccer, built out of the back and we definitely built a comfort with each other," Williams said.
That chemistry carried over into 2012 as the two have been called upon in a time of need for the Black & Gold. With injuries to center backs Julius James and Carlos Mendes, each had earned a pair of starts alongside Crew Captain Chad Marshall this season.
But when Marshall was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms before last week's match in Portland, the tandem's chemistry paid off as they helped the Crew to a clean sheet against the Timbers to earn an important road point in the captain's absence.
"One might look at an away match at Portland as a daunting task – and it was, don't get me wrong – but we're confident in ourselves," Gehrig reflected on the road draw. "We're confident in the guys around us. We're comfortable with each other and it worked out well.”
"Going in, playing in front of 20,000 people didn't really shake us,” Williams echoed. “It was fun playing with (Gehrig), and we talked about playing with each other before. It was good to see that finally come true.”
The two's history of success with goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum in the Reserve League provided a natural bond in the back for the Crew.
"Over the years, it's been sort of a comfortable thing for both of them," the veteran 'keeper said. "With me being back there with them, it's very helpful. We all just fall back into our old ways of winning Reserve League games, except we're doing it one step up now."
The defensive core of Gehrig, Williams, and Gruenebaum will hope to carry that success into this weekend as the Black & Gold welcomes FC Dallas to Crew Stadium, should Marshall again be unavailable as he recovers from the knock he took in Portland.
"These guys have taken advantage of the opportunities that we've given them," Crew technical director Brian Bliss said of Gehrig and Williams' success. "It's a good lesson for a lot of guys that don't think they're going to come in and play right away. Bide your time, be patient and work hard, then you'll get your opportunities and make good out of them. Those guys have done that."