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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
RSL's Andy Williams, left, battles for the ball in a game back in April. Williams' strong late-season play helped RSL get back to the MLS playoffs.

SANDY — It wasn't long ago that Andy Williams was seemingly lost on Real Salt Lake's bench. Through the first two-thirds of the MLS season, he'd made just two starts in addition to a dozen or so brief appearances as a substitute.

The worst stretch came right around the All-Star break, when Williams made two appearances over five matches for a grand total of just seven minutes. The lack of production seemed to signal the end was nearing for the last Real Salt Lake original.

Now, however, as the team heads into its first-round playoff series with Columbus, there might not be a more important player to RSL's hopes than Andy Williams.

"He's been playing incredibly. It seems every time he's on the field, he's creating chances for us, and a lot of them are resulting in goals. I don't think there's any accident there," said RSL defender Chris Wingert. "I've been really impressed by his play week in and week out, and he seems to keep doing it. He's a guy we really need to have on the field."

Wingert's endorsement of Williams is about as close to a line-up recommendation as you'll ever hear from a player, but with the way RSL's fan favorite has been playing lately, starting him seems like a no-brainer.

RSL posted a 4-3-2 record in the final nine games of the season, and during that stretch, Williams made five starts, appeared in every game and logged one goal and five assists. It might've been his most productive stretch in a Real Salt Lake uniform since his arrival back in 2005, and was capped by his two assists against the Rapids last weekend.

"For me, what was more impressive than some of the outstanding touches and passes he had was the defensive work he did, and he shows he's capable of that," RSL coach Jason Kreis said after the victory over Colorado. "When he does that, it's huge for the team. I always know the touches are going to be there, it's always a question of if he's going to be committed to defending."

That uncertainty about Williams' defensive effort was a big reason why he didn't play much earlier this season. Even though he never made excuses, the chaos of his life away from soccer as his wife battled a rare form of leukemia was clearly a distraction.

In the past couple of months though, Williams' life on and off the field has become more settled.

It started with improvement on the practice field in early August. It didn't go unnoticed by the coaching staff, so on Aug. 23 — when midfielder Javier Morales injured his ankle in the opening minutes at New England — it was Williams who replaced him for the final 77 minutes.

RSL lost the match, but Williams played well and the coaching staff decided to start him three nights later in a critical home match against Chivas USA. It was arguably Williams' best game in an RSL uniform as he terrorized opposing midfielders in a convincing 4-0 victory.

For an encore, he started the next three matches as well, logging an assist in all three.

Off the field, Williams' wife, Marcia, returned to Utah on Sept. 30 after spending most of the year at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. Williams said it's nice to have her home, but "once the game's over and practice, it's back to reality. She's back home and she's feeling a little bit better, but we have a long way to go for her. But we still take it day by day right now."

On the field Williams says he's training just as hard now as he was earlier this year. The coaching staff has been more impressed lately, though, and he's making the most of his opportunities.

The timing couldn't be better for many reasons.

For Real Salt Lake, Williams' increased productivity led to a playoff berth.

For Williams himself, he's proving he still has plenty of juice left in the tank as a productive midfielder in Major League Soccer. He might be able to parlay that into having RSL pick up the option year on his contract after this season. Or, if the club doesn't protect him for the upcoming Philadelphia Union expansion draft, the league's 16th franchise might take a gamble that his productivity lasts several more years.

"Especially with me, you always have to keep your options open. We have an expansion draft next year and anything's possible," said Williams. "The team is looking to improve next year. For me, I'm always trying to do my best no matter what, in case of the worst-case scenario."

Thanks in large part to Williams, Real Salt Lake doesn't need to worry about 2010 for a few more weeks.

MLS first round

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e-mail: jedward@desnews.com