For most elite youth talents, soccer is a way a life instilled by parents and older siblings rooted in the sport. That was not the case for Sam Williams, the former New York Red Bulls academy midfielder and current University of North Carolina freshman.
Williams did not have any connection to the game and played other sports initially. A Jersey kid growing up in Tenafly, his first connection to the game was a Red Bulls camp that was happening in his town. After playing with local club teams, Williams joined the Red Bulls Academy at the U-12 age level.
Williams spent one year with the U-12s and one with the U-13s before he was cut by the club. After a stint with the Bergen County offshoot of Cedar Stars Academy, Williams was offered a trial his sophomore year with the Red Bulls U-17s. He made it and worked his way up into the elite U-19 group.
One may think a player who has ascended so quickly from schoolboy trialist to weekly contributor for Red Bulls II in USL would have been a fast-tracked prodigy. But the pro game was not at the front of his mind when Williams rejoined the Red Bulls.
“As the year started I thought I was just going to be with the academy the whole time, maybe some time with the U19 team. Obviously my goal was to train with the USL team and get some time there but I never really thought it was going to happen”
During the pandemic season, with travel and the ability to play elite academies across the country and internationally restricted, the Red Bulls turned to local senior teams such as FC Motown for games. These games were where Williams first stood out and went from a regular academy player to one on the radar of Red Bulls II.
After two thousand minutes over two seasons with Red Bulls II, Williams took a detour from the professional track this summer to take on a scholarship at the University of North Carolina. Born in 2005, Williams should be entering his senior year of high school. However, when the opportunity to enroll a year early came about, Williams used online courses to graduate high school early. While some may question why a kid developing such potential would do this, Williams had a clear vision for his future.
“It was based on how I wanted my future to look and getting everything started early. Education is something really important to me so I wanted to have a plan B in case something goes wrong.”
A common theme with Williams is ending up places not initially on his radar. His recruitment to North Carolina to play with the Tar Heels was similar. Despite his emergence in USL, Williams was not heavily recruited. UNC was not even a school he reached out to. It was UNC that made the first move and the rest was history.
“Last summer they called me and said they wanted me to go there. They were the first team that really offered me anything so just meeting the coaches and coming down here (to Chapel Hill) for a visit. Once I saw the campus and everybody here and the facilities, I knew.”
For Williams the Red Bulls II experience helped him mature as a player as well as understand his own game and how to be critical of it and improve.
“They really taught me how to actually watch film and see how I can get better. I never really watched film before last year and John (Wolyniec) was huge on the small things which really helped me out. I just really learned how to improve as a player and not be so content with what I was doing.”
Williams is looking to bring this experience to a Tar Heels team loaded with talent looking to win in an always competitive ACC. For Red Bull fans looking to follow college soccer and catch a glimpse of a potential homegrown from the college ranks, Sam Williams and UNC are a team worth watching.