Normally, when a soccer player is pinned in his own end, he tries to kick the ball away from the goal line to prevent a corner kick. After all, the theory goes, it’s far better to force the other team to throw the ball in from the side line than to get a shot at that hard corner kick to the goal, right? Not when you’re playing the Philadelphia Union and defender Sheanon Williams.
Williams’ long throw-ins from near an opponent’s corner are so epic that the Sons of Ben fan group has developed a kind of name for it: Boom! That’s what you hear shouted from the River End every time Williams launches the ball at PPL Park. And no wonder. Williams is not only among the best in the league at this special skill, the Union has nabbed two goals so far this young season directly off Williams’ long tosses.
I had a chance to ask Williams about the Boom shortly after his appearance on the Union’s 90th Minute Radio Show earlier this week at the Chickie’s and Pete’s in Drexel Hill. The Union stalwart has an interesting take on why he’s been able to develop his throws into something special: his nationality.
“If you think about it,” Sheanon told me, “most American sports involve using your hands. Growning-up, I was used to using my hands and I think that makes it easier to control the ball.”
Williams was born in Boston and schooled in suburban Weston, Massachusetts. While soccer has always been his thing, playing for the FC Greater Boston Bolts as a youngster and staying with the sport from college age straight through to the pros, he obviously had exposure to everything else American kids are exposed to in any major city, a little different from other areas of the world where kids are practically born with soccer cleats on their feet and may only rarely touch a basketball or a baseball.
As for the strategy behind throw-ins, about the only obvious Union plan seems to be, “Give Sheanon the ball”. When Williams is on the pitch, you rarely see anyone else handling the chore. I asked the defender whether there’s a set play in place for the throw-in, or whether he simply watches how the defense is lining-up with his teammates and tries to be creative.
“It’s not really a set play,” Williams said, “but everyone knows their jobs. We’ve got big guys in the middle like (Conor) Casey and (Amobi) Okugo. And then Jack (McInerney) is usually in the back in case the ball comes free.”
So, while the play may have some wiggle room, the general idea is to have certain players in the middle receiving the ball and certain others in open positions looking for deflections. On the other hand, everyone knows what their teammates are doing. In fact, the last goal off a Williams throw-in featured a tip off Casey’s dome to McInerney who was open on the far side of the net and had time to settle the ball before firing it in. At the time, it looked to me like Casey was intentionally tipping the ball McInerney’s way, since he had no clear header opportunity. Williams confirms that this is one of several possible outcomes the team is seeking when he long-tosses.
Williams also acknowleges that the throw-in can be more accurate than a corner kick, since it’s easier to aim the ball using two hands than it is using one foot. You lose velocity with the toss, but you gain precision. Either way, it’s clear that the Union is in a much better position having a guy like Williams around for those throw-ins; his special talent supplements the corner kick game nicely and gives the Union more opportunities to score.
It also gives the Sons of Ben and the rest of the Union faithful something else to shout at home games: Boom!