Republic FC’s Harry Williams upbeat despite foul debut

Republic FC rookie Harry Williams was treated like a famous former NBA star when he made his USL debut Saturday against Saint Louis FC.

It seemed every time the talented forward touched the ball, he was fouled.

Saint Louis FC’s strategy seemed much like what NBA teams used to do to Shaquille O’Neal during much of his 19-year career – the “Hack-A-Shaq” treatment because he was a poor free-throw shooter.

The “Hack-A-Harry” strategy worked for Saint Louis FC, too, though its defenders made sure to foul Williams outside the penalty box, where the only reward is a free kick. Williams, 20, had only one good look on goal, an 86th-minute volley right at goalkeeper Patrick McLain, in Republic FC’s 1-0 loss.

“I watched the game back, and I didn’t realize how many times I was fouled,” Williams said. “I thought I got into good pockets of space, and the way to stop that was to bring me down. I just wished we could have capitalized on that and got a goal or two.”

Despite the physical attention he received, Williams showed enough energy and pizzazz to help Republic FC outshoot Saint Louis 18-6 to earn “Man of the Match” honors.

“Harry was too much for them,” Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said. “He was too skillful, too clever. We never got to see him get to goal because they chopped him down on a number of occasions. It wasn’t easy on the eye.”

But Buckle said the performance gave Republic FC fans a glimpse of Williams’ potential and why he lobbied his fellow Englishman to come to the United States.

“He’s a very talented young man, and for someone who’s 20, I thought for his debut he was outstanding,” Buckle said. “The way he linked up with our players was perfect for us. It’s what we’re looking to do, and I tell you, he can score goals.”

Despite the physical play and disappointing result, Williams said he enjoyed getting a chance to play after a knee injury forced him to miss more than a month and four USL games.

He went the distance against Saint Louis FC and tweaked his left hamstring late in the match. He hopes to be ready for Saturday’s match against Orange County Blues FC at Bonney Field.

Williams is from Cheltenham Town, a small city in southwestern England. He came up through the Cheltenham Town FC academy program, for which he scored a season club-record 38 goals, and signed his first pro contract with his hometown team in the summer of 2014. He also scored 22 goals while on loan with three lower-level teams.

Williams became acquainted with Buckle during Buckle’s 79-day stint as Cheltenham Town FC’s manager in 2014-15.

“He played a big part in me choosing to come here,” Williams said. “I know him, he knows me, and we know what to expect of each other. … Obviously I did my research before coming out here and looked at Sacramento. It’s got big ambitions.”

Even though Cheltenham Town FC won the National League title and will move back up to England’s League Two after one year in relegation, Williams said he was prepared to “start the next chapter in my life.”

“I think time will only tell, but at the moment it’s a great place to live, great place to go to work every day, and I’m enjoying my football,” he said. “My goal is to become a better player and to help make Sacramento a better team and get into the MLS. The fans deserve it, as does the club.”

Williams also hopes to help Republic FC end its scoring drought. Sacramento has scored just twice in five USL matches and has not scored in its past three matches.

“I think there’s a monkey on our back at the moment,” Williams said. “Once we get the first and the second, then the gates will open. I think there would be a greater worry if we weren’t creating the chances. … We have shown we can play good football.”

Williams rooms with Mackenzie Pridham, 25, another forward.

“You could say he’s a father figure,” Williams said with a smile. “He walks in and always says, ‘Daddy’s home.’ He’s a great guy. He’s been really good to me.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP