TORRANCE, Calif. -- After a strong spring with his new club, there was a stretch in the middle of the season when Andy Williams wasn't starting for the Chicago Fire. He had just got back from representing Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and Dave Sarachan's young side was on a winning streak, which meant there was no reason to shake up the lineup.
That's when the whispers about Williams started up again around the league. The ones that have always seemed to follow the 26-year-old midfielder. How he's aloof, and not a good team guy. How he doesn't play defense, or work hard, or work well within a system. Or, as one coach put it, "Not many players have Andy's talent, so obviously there's a reason why he's been on five teams in six years."
Known for being a player's coach due to his strong communication skills and intuitiveness, Sarachan sensed he could lose Williams during this span, and made a special effort during this time to reach out to him.
"He's a guy that I just got to know as far as what I feel makes him tick and what I feel keeps him involved," said the first-year coach for the Fire. "He loves the game so much, so when he's not a part of things, he tends to withdraw a little bit. There was some encouragement throughout those stretches that kept him involved."
"Dave said that even though I'm not playing now," said Williams, "that I should keep my head up because when playoff time comes around my experience will help the team a lot and they'll need me. Once a coach tells you what's up and what's on his mind, it's so much easier as a player, and that's the way it's been here for me."
Responding to his coach's words, Williams kept a good attitude on the sideline, and was a key contributor down the stretch, particularly in the U.S. Open Cup when he played a vital role coming off the bench as a second-half substitute. It ultimately resulted in a return to the starting lineup for the final two games of the season, as well as through three games of the playoffs, helping to lead Chicago's run to the MLS Cup Final where it'll take on San Jose this Sunday.
During that time, his usual exemplary skills on the ball and playmaking ability have been apparent, as has a new-found work-rate that others around the league have noticed, and have pointed out as being one of the reasons Chicago surprised the league this year to take the regular season crown as well as the U.S. Open Cup title.
"Andy Williams is playing harder than ever," said New England Revolution assistant coach John Murphy, who coached Williams in 2001 and for five games in 2002 before he was traded to the MetroStars. "Dave Sarachan has got him working hard on defense, whipping in crosses and doing all the things he's always been capable of doing. It just shows what a good team environment they have over there."
When Williams arrived very late in the preseason via a trade that saw Chicago only give up a conditional draft pick in the 2004 MLS Draft for his rights, he saw right away the team he was playing for. It was one that had a leadership structure in place with veterans such as Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch preaching the team concept and carrying it out on a daily basis. It became catchy, so to speak.
"Coach wants us to work both sides of the ball, and everyone does it," said Williams. "He's a coach you want to work hard for, too You can see that throughout our whole team. No one slacks. So you don't ever want to be the weak link out there."
And he hasn't been. All Sarachan said it took was getting him involved on a team that plays for each other and is without ego.
"There's a certain knock on Andy that he won't do the work on defense," said Sarachan. "That's a little unfair because I think he's been a product of environments that have let him off the hook. In our environment, everyone's in it together. He'd never been in that environment. When you have the ball you're attacking, and when you lose the ball you're defending."
Playing for Columbus, Miami, New England and the MetroStars since he entered the league as a discovery player for the Crew in 1998 after a stellar career as an All-American at the University of Rhode Island, Williams was often allowed to float as an attacker, whether he was up front or in the midfield.
With Chicago, he's been used as a withdrawn striker, as a central midfielder, and lately, as a wide midfielder on the right side, where he's been given more room to operate and is encouraged to use his creativity.
Marsch believes Williams' tricky play and unpredictability has been the perfect addition to their midfield mix since there's already a strong defensive presence with Armas, a solid worker with all-around smarts in Marsch, and a speedy, offensive weapon in DaMarcus Beasley.
"Andy is a difficult guy to defend because he does different things than most people in this league do," said the 30-year-old stalwart, who has been a part of three MLS Cup-winning squads in his eight-year career. "He's pretty crafty on the ball, and he's much stronger than people think. With his strength and balance, he can shift around guys. Plus, he's pretty fast. We've put him in a position out on the right where he can do the things he does well.
"We'll cover for him in other ways -- defend for him a bit, make it easy for him to play simple balls - so that his strengths come out when he plays. And he's been great. He's so good around the goal, and it certainly helps as an option for Damani (Ralph). He's served a great role for us."
Finding Ralph and Ante Razov -- the top striker partnership in Major League Soccer -- has been key for Williams' success, and allowed him to lead the team in assists this year with seven. He's not counted on to score goals, but his line-drive, 25-yard goal ("I haven't scored a goal like that since I was in high school in Jamaica") against D.C. United just three minutes into their first-round playoff series set the tone for his side, which resulted in an easy pair of wins over Ray Hudson's squad.
It's come within the most fun part of Williams' career.
"I haven't been in the playoffs since 1999, so I'm very excited," he said. "Being on a winning team helps so much. It's just been a great year."
Credit Fire general manager Peter Wilt and Sarachan for looking past his reputation, and taking a chance on him last March when many viewed him to be a bad fit for their own sides.
"He's a misunderstood guy," said Sarachan. "A lot of people get the wrong signals from Andy. Beyond all of that, I just believed there was a lot of soccer there. How it would fit in with our team and our system was the question.
"As it's turned out, it's worked out and he's played very well."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.