Will Hesmer is a retired American goalkeeper. He played at Wake Forest University, where he was named a first team All-American his senior year, and spent almost a decade in MLS as a goalkeeper. In 2008, with Hesmer in goal, the Columbus Crew won the MLS Cup. He was called into the US Men's National Team camp twice, is thirteenth all-time in games played in MLS and is one of the best penalty kick savers in MLS history. Hesmer took some time to walk through his colorful career, covering the highlights as well as explaining what it's like sitting the bench early in his career, struggling with injuries, and leaving a club after playing for so long.
How did you get into goalkeeping? And when did soccer become your number one sport?
I got into soccer probably ages three to four. I grew up on a neighborhood with about ten other kids and I was the youngest out of all of them. So all the kids in the neighborhood played soccer and also I watched it grow up in a small town that, for whatever reason or another, was pretty dedicated to youth soccer. It was a small farming town in North Carolina where football and basketball were dominant compared to youth soccer, but we carved out a small group that loved soccer. There were tons of opportunities to play. As far as when I became a goalkeeper, my mom likes to claim that I came into goalkeeping because I got to wear a different jersey and I thought I was special because of the jersey. *laughs* But I didn't really get into goalkeeping until when I went to college. That's when I really focused 100% on goalkeeping. I was primarily a midfielder until college. I played goalkeeper for my club when we went to regionals or nationals. I was playing goal for state teams, regional teams, stuff like that. But the majority of my time I spent as a field player. And I would say soccer didn't become my number one sport until college. I played five sports in high school so I didn't really have much time to think about what would be number one.
How did you end up at Wake Forest?
I actually took my first recruiting trip to Wake Forest as a football player and I loved it. I really loved the school, loved the people. Basically I categorized it as academics, athletics, and social, in that order. I made the decision fall of my senior year, probably around October, that I was going to play soccer and not football. At that time, Duke and UVA were the frontrunners. Wake had recruited me a little bit in the summer but hadn't really recruited me much at all until about November. I went on to recruiting trips to Duke and UVA and I was pretty close to actually committing to Duke until Wake jumped back in the picture in November. I went on a visit there and the next day, my birthday, I committed right then and there right after my visit. I knew immediately it was the best fit for me.
What happened with football? Why did that drop off and soccer take over?
I never spent much time playing football, to be honest. I went to my high school practices and that was it. I never played football until I was a sophomore in high school. The high school kicker was going to miss the opening game. His niece had a wedding? He had some sort of conflict that someone in his family was getting married. So he missed the first game of the season and they knew that was coming so coach asked me to come out and kick. I went out and kicked and hit the game winning field goal. It was pretty natural. It didn't require that much practice to kick a football at that level. I keep kicking for the rest of the year. It didn't end up being a one game thing. I did that all year and loved it. But by my junior year I was just messing around in preseason with some guys as receiver and cornerback and I loved playing there. The coaches watched and said "Wow you're a pretty good athlete. Ever thought about playing receiver or cornerback?" And I said "Yeah why not? I'll try it out." I went on to play corner, receiver, and kicked for the next two years.
Looking back at Wake Forest, specifically in '02 and '03, your school was rated very high going into the tournaments but didn't advance that far. So how do you look back at your time at Wake Forest? Is it bittersweet that you wished you would have done more?
You're exactly right. I look back at that roster and the talent we had on the field... I don't think anyone else comes close to us. I think there was a Stanford team and a UCLA team that were close but if you look up and down our roster we were stacked. For some reason we could never put it together at tourney time and a lot of that, I think, had to do with injuries. We always seemed to be worn down at that time, whether it was the school demands at Wake, the season, the ACC schedule, the ACC tournament. It always seemed at that time in the year we just weren't hitting on all cylinders. And I think Jay Vidovich, who's still there now, has figured out much better now than he did back in 02 and 03. I think those experiences were a good learning curve for success to make four Final Four trips and a national championship in the mid 2000s.
There's a common idea that college stunts the growth of a player and that they'd be better suited playing overseas. But just about every American goalkeeper that has made it to the MLS or played for the US team has played college soccer somewhere. So how do you view college as far as producing goalkeepers? Is it different for goalkeepers?
Yeah, without a doubt. If you just look at the position of goalkeeping, it's such a more cerebral position than anywhere else on the field. It requires a lot of brain power and a lot of maturity. It’s easy to say that they're not getting enough games from 19 to 24, I understand that argument, but turning pro just for the check or to say you're a pro, I think that's wrong. There's no doubt in my opinion that the college game does a much better job at developing goalkeepers than it does field players. A field player’s maturity level is not as important as a goalkeepers. Plus field players have a shorter window to play, theoretically, as well. Unless you are a top three pick and going to play meaningful games coming out of college, I think it best young goalkeepers stay in college, get an education, and continue to grow their game there. If they are good enough, the pro game will always be there for them.
When did you realize you could play professionally? I imagined you had a dream when you were younger but when did you have that click in your head when you thought "Okay I can play in MLS?"
Really, I never had a desire to play MLS at all. Even, after my freshman year at Wake. Even after training with the Galaxy after my freshman year for about ten days. I didn't really have the desire to do that and never really knew if it was possible or not. After my sophomore year, I'd say after the first weekend of a tournament, I think George Mason held the tournament my sophomore year… that's kinda when people started saying "You're gonna be a pro." And it wasn't necessarily something that I wanted or even something I was striving for. I mean don't get me wrong, I worked my ass off in everything, but it wasn't to be a pro. It was just to be a better teammate, a better goalkeeper, a better person. None of the actions I ever did were to be professional soccer player. It just kinda fell in place that way.
After Wake, you were the 17th draft pick in the 2004 draft, being selected by Kansas City Wizards. But you're behind Tony Meola and Bo, I'm sure I'm going to say his name wrong, Oh-sho-noyi? [Bo Oshoniyi]
*laughs* Bo Oh-sho-ni
Ah, thank you. Sitting behind such established veterans, what did you get out of watching them play?
I learned a lot about Tony's experiences. Those guys were at an age where they had things set and how they did things. Every goalkeeper operates differently from training philosophy to their work ethic to how much they watch tape. So for Tony, he's obviously been through a lot. When I was ten years old, I was gifted a pair of goalie gloves every Christmas. Tony Meola’s 94 World Cup Reusch gloves some of my favorite gloves growing up. So coming from that point was a little surreal, that, there you were, training with one of the goalkeepers you used to watch in the World Cup for the US for however many 100 caps he had. So that was pretty cool. But once you get there you're a pro and you're competing.
For Meola, he was so good with his feet and he was so good with both feet. I don't think people gave him enough credit about that. He was really, really good with his feet and he always seemed to know when pressure was there the most and when his team needed a big save and he generally came up in those moments. For Bo, Bo was just a great guy. With Bo, probably the most important thing I learned was that you're going to be training goalkeepers through your career. If you're lucky, a decade. And there’s the realization that only one of us is going to play but there's no reason to come into work hostile or make it uncomfortable for everyone there training and working. We can all work hard to compete but we can still do it and be good friends. So that was pretty cool how he accepted me and how he brought it all together.
There was never any contentious moments. I've never had a situation ever where a backup or anybody who I was competing with where we were enemies. We were all really good friends. Looking back, it's a lot of fun to say "Yeah, I competed with this guy for six years,” like Gruenebaum, but now we're really good friends and we call almost weekly still.
In 2006, you’re picked up in the expansion draft for Toronto FC. Were you disappointed to leave KC?
I guess from a soccer standpoint I was happy to leave. I had built up a lot of relationships and friendships with those guys so you don't want to leave those guys. But from a soccer standpoint it needed to happen. If I wasn't going anywhere then I was going to be a backup again in Kansas City. I know they were going to look to bring in a starter. They weren't going to, probably, give me a fair shake at the starting position so I was looking to go somewhere else. It really wasn't until the last second that Columbus was going to take me.
Why didn’t you feel like you were going to get a fair shot? Because of your age?
Yeah, I think it was age. I was improving. I think that Peter Vermes, we had a brief conversation, had a respect for my talent and ability but I don't think he was willing to, more than his head coach would, stick his claim on a twenty-four year old goalkeeper with three starts behind him. I think it made sense that they wanted someone more proven at that time. And I was looking to play and honestly if I wasn't going to get a chance to go compete then I was heading to law school, which I had already applied to.
So in these first couple years, were you set on playing as long as you could? Or were you willing to stop playing to pursue other things?
Well the first couple years were pretty disappointing to not get a chance to play. I thought especially in year two that I should… I'll say this, by year two, I was number two to Bo Ohsonoi. I knew I was capable of playing and being a starter and succeeding in the league. So it kind of became something that I had to accomplish before I could walk away. If I had walked away after year three and only had three starts and never really proven it not only to myself but to others that I was good enough to be a starter, I would have left with some regret. So at that point, I thought, “Alright, I know I can prove that I'm a starter. I know I can prove that I can be a successful starter and a championship caliber goalkeeper.” Now will the opportunity present itself? That's not something I could control. But I have to keep going in hopes that that opportunity arises and that I can prove it. So luckily Columbus stepped up and gave me that shot.
In the expansion draft, you’re actually selected by Toronto first then immediately traded to Columbus? What was that experience like?
Yeah it was nuts. This is a really good story. I was actually caravanning from Kansas City to Springfield, Missouri at the time of the draft. Let's see... it was Davy Arnaud, Jack Jewsbury, Taylor Graham. There were about five or six of us young guys and there were about two or three of us to a car. I was driving behind, I believe, Jack and Davy. And I got a phone call from a blocked number. We all had joked about who was going to be taken in the expansion draft. I got a random call saying "He Will, this is so-and-so from Toronto, we've taken you in the expansion draft." But it didn't sound real. My first reaction was "Fuck you. No you didn't." *laughs* We thought it was one of our buddies, either Davy or Jack or one of the other guys because we had done that all the time. You know, we'd call each other on the bus after one of the games and one of Taylor Graham's favorite things to do was to say, "Hey this is Rich Mahoney from Soccer America. Davy, what'd you think about that game tonight?" *laughs* We messed around with people so I thought for sure it was one of those guys playing a joke on me. But I think I caught him off guard so he said, "Nooo, we've drafted you but we're probably going to trade you. We'll be in touch." And that was it.
And I guess a couple hours later you heard from Columbus?
Yeah and then two hours later I was trying on my tuxedo for the wedding and got a call from Sigi [Schmid].
You talked about your relationship with Gruenbaum. In 2007 he starts the first ten games of the season and you finish the rest. Can you elaborate on that season?
I came into preseason and the first day of preseason I tore my hamstring running a timed sixty meter sprint. So that preseason was really rough. In fact that whole first half of the year was really tough. Sigi had taken a chance on me and put a lot of faith in me. He released Jon Busch for me and now I was hurt.
So I went through a pretty grueling rehab. I even spent some time at Bayern Munich with their team doctor for rehab. Finally by game eleven, I was in shape and pretty good form. And we went on a really good run. In fact, I'd argue we were probably one of the better teams the last half of the year until we lost Chad Marshall to concussion issues. And I think that really set the stage for what we were able to do in 2008.
Before we get to that championship season, I want to ask you about your goal. I've only been able to find two goalkeepers that have scored in the run of play in an MLS match. On your goal, as the ball is falling to your feet, there's a slight hesitation in your swing that throws everyone off and the defender in front of you ends up diving too early because of it. How intentional was that and can you walk through the whole play?
Well I was standing at midfield looking over at the bench asking if I should go up or not. And every single person on the bench was basically saying no. Even Bobby, our head coach, was saying no to stay back, waving the other way. But I saw Ricardo Irribaren, our assistant coach, saying "Go! Go!" So all I needed was one guy *laughs*
I was late getting there. I was on the verge of going up with the crowd to try and get a head on it but I figured I'd just get in Chad's way if I went up. So I just dropped back a little bit and felt a good hole where if the ball were to come I would have a chance to at least put it on frame. It came to me in an awkward spot, right at my hip. After thighing it down, I thought about taking it out of the air, instead of letting it bounce. Then I thought, "Well alright I'll just take it on the half volley" but realized that I had a bunch of time. I believe it was Dan Gargan who came running at me and he kind of hesitated and it seemed like everything stood still. I got a little bit of a lucky deflection but saw a hole and just tried to drive it through it.
And your celebration, I don't know if you remember this, but you just kind of ran around. I guess you never planned a celebration for scoring a goal?
*laughs* No, not at all. Honestly, I couldn't stop laughing. I thought, "Wow this is such a joke. This can't really be happening." I was going over to the sideline to celebrate with the team but the coaches, instead of being happy, I was really shocked, they were thinking one step ahead and yelling at me to go to the opponents corner flag over towards the goal I scored so we could burn some more clock. There ended up being more time left in stoppage time so that's why I took the u-turn to go back the other way
You're one of the better penalty kick savers in the MLS. You're fifth overall with at least fifteen penalties faced. There are a lot of little things people talk about but someone who has actually been there, what do you look for in a shooter?
A lot of the times I've figured it out way before the shooter comes up and way before kickoff happens. I've probably watched more film on players and teams than all of my other teammates combined. I typically like to look at a shooter's last five, six penalties. I would always do that before every game. I would have an idea of who the shooter was and I would talk to past teammates. For example, when I saved Kyle Martino’s in LA, Martino played for the Crew before and Duncan was one of his good friends. I had a conversation with Duncan before the game. He said "Hey if they get a penalty, Kyle is most likely to take it.” So what does he likes to do? Does he like to hesitate? Does he open or close? Does he go left? Does he go right? Does he go high? Does he drive it down the middle? It's a lot of conversations. A lot of homework. It's more homework than anything.
About the 2008 team, what was something about the team that contributed to the championship run that wasn't obvious to the public?
Well your stereotypical answer is we did everything together. There was a big group of us, young guys and old guys, and we did everything together. Whatever it was, we were all there together and we all had fun together. When we put the ball away we put it away and we didn't talk about it. We got to know each other and appreciate each other off the field as much as we did on the field. And some of the dynamics and I think the most important dynamic... we had very, very good foreigners and I don’t mean as just players, but players and people. They passionately cared about the well-being of our teammates and wanted to entrench themselves into our culture. There was no divide there like the Latinos kept to themselves and the Americans kept to themselves. There was none of that. Everyone was together and unified. So we were really lucky to have good guys and there were no cliques at all.
You end up getting invited into both 2008 and 2009 Camp Cupcakes with the US team. What was that experience like for you? What stuck out?
*laughs* Yeah I think Camp Cupcake is probably the worst term they could call that because it's so hard. I think that was the first thing that stuck out. I had never ran that much. Zak Abdel was the goalkeeper coach. I had trained with him some during his time in LA and it was full throttle all the time [in LA]. It was the hardest month of my life up until that point and I thought I had worked pretty hard in college and then pros and off-season, but nothing could prepare me for how tough that month was.
There's no doubt that being the third goalkeeper, being the fourth goalkeeper for the World Cup would have been a dream to have been invited into that. And that was the goal but in reality, I think that camp really held me back for the upcoming MLS season because you're so drained after that month. To go back and spend two months preseason with your team... It just makes the year that much longer to never get a break. And I think it led to a bunch of injuries to be honest. I have a bittersweet feeling about those camps. I'm glad I got the experience but in the long run, as hard and demanding as it was, on top of another two months of preseason, it probably wasn't the smartest thing to push my body that far.
What was it like with the other goalkeepers in camp? Were y'all still close or was...
Yeah, very close! Troy Perkins, Jon Busch, and Matt Pickens, and I, were all at one. And ironically Jon Busch, Troy Perkins, and I grew up training in Charlotte, North Carolina in the summers since we were about ten years old. We had spent many, many days on the training field together training before that. So that was pretty cool for all of us to be there at the same time.
Can you talk a little bit about Bob Bradley's demeanor? He's always viewed as this icy, cold personality from the media. What was he like in camp?
Yeah that's probably right on. I never said one word to him. I think I might have said "Hi, I'm William" and he said "Hi, I'm Bob" and that was it.
You were a teammate of Robbie Rogers for five years. After he came out, there was a lot of positive feedback and support but there's not a lot of people talking about the locker room setting. If he had come out earlier, would have anything been different with the team?
I don't think there would have been anything different at all. That's probably why you haven't heard anything about it. Hopefully we're at a point where that's not an issue. I don't think it would have been an issue at all in our locker room in Columbus. I know for a fact it hasn't been an issue in LA's locker room and a lot of that has to do with the leadership of the team. There are a bunch of good guys in these of locker rooms and I don't think anybody would have thought about stepping out of place. I know in our locker room [in Columbus], people wouldn't have stood for it. It's pretty open. It's pretty crazy the things that are said and go on in locker rooms. If you just wrote on a piece of paper the things that are said and happen it would be unbelievable to many but if you're there and in the moment of it, it's all really out loving friendship, brotherhood, and camaraderie. *laughs* There are some pretty crazy things that go on but nothing ever where somebody would cross the line to intentionally hurt a teammate.
Is there any locker room story you would be alright with sharing? Or is that completely off-limits?
Uhhh… I mean, there are probably none that are PG-enough to share coming off the top of my head *laughs*. I mean, you name it, it's probably been done.
Fair enough. Last game of the 2010 regular season, you end up fracturing your shoulder going up for a corner kick. The challenge looked harmless enough until you stayed on the ground. What was going through your mind there and what was the conversation like with Gruenebaum with him having to start in the playoffs?
Um… yeah, that really tough. Like you said it was a challenge that I've gone up for a thousand times. No big deal. I've been hit much harder than that on thousands of other occasions. Just for some reason it happened just right and I knew immediately. I heard a click and break. There were five minutes left in the game and I had played every minute of the whole season, something I was really proud of. And to have to leave for just five minutes and not complete the game… I tried my best to stay on the field but I couldn't even move my arm to undo my glove.
The hardest part was obviously going into the series. I thought we had a good chance to win the cup then we lose to Colorado in penalty kicks. There's no doubt in my mind that had I been in the goal we would have advanced and hopefully raised another trophy. So that was the hardest part to swallow regarding the injury. As far as any conversation with Gruenebaum, he's played enough games. I was just there to support. I had full confidence in him. We talked a little bit after the fact about the penalties but, you know, sometimes they just don't go your way.
In 2012 you're hit with more injuries. Early on you have that ankle sprain and then you have surgery on your hip. So can you talk about that year and what was the most frustrating part of it? And when did retirement enter your mind?
Going back to 2009, I thought I had a torn my groin. I went to get the MRI and they found out my hip had a whole host of issues and damage: a torn labrum, bone spurs, no more articular cartilage. They recommended surgery at the end of 2009. I made the decision that I could keep doing rehab and strengthen the muscles around it to overcome the injury and just keep pushing through the pain. Because when I was playing there wasn't a lot of pain but when I would stop playing or exercising it was pretty brutal. So it was just a maintenance issue and a little bit of a pain issue. Not while playing, but after playing. Especially when we would travel on bus rides or plane rides for long periods. So I made it through 2010 but I could tell the injury was starting to affect my ability to kick a ball. I've always prided myself on being very good with my feet but I was starting to really struggle to drive a ball. Especially goal kicks.
By the time 2012 started, I don't know if the ankle injury had anything to do with, I suspect it probably did, but my hip injury had finally gotten to the point where it was just bone on bone. I couldn't even get my leg back far enough to really kick a ball properly. So at that point I knew I had to get it operated on and get it fixed. But I knew going into surgery that there's a good chance I wouldn't recover from it and my playing days were over.
What were talks with LA like? Did you tell them you were contemplating retirement? Because you signed in December and then retired in February.
That was kind of a whirlwind time. I actually went to Brian [Bliss], who was the technical director of the Crew at the time, this was August, September, and I said "Look, I'm starting to really feel good. My rehab is going really well. Much better than we expected. I'm going to start training again and I'm looking to come back and play. Gruenebaum has been playing great and deserves to keep the job and be the starter and I'd like to have a chance to play for a team that's going to compete." And, in my opinion, the Crew were no longer that team. As much as I'd like to stay there, I didn't want to stay with that coaching staff and I certainly didn't want to stay there because I didn't think they were doing all the right things to win. So if I was going to risk my health for the long run I wanted to get with a team that was doing things right and looking to compete to win. So at that time, my agent and I started scouring the league to see who might need a goalkeeper. When we put all those other pieces together, LA stood out and there were also very interested in me.
We started the more serious discussions with LA around November. They were thinking about trading for me before the re-entry draft. They didn't end up doing that so I kind of had to talk to a few other teams out of taking me, out of respect to their goalkeepers, I won't say who, in the re-entry draft. I ended up telling them "If you take my I'm probably going to retire" to… hmm… manipulate is probably a strong word, but to manipulate my way to getting to LA.
We had already had contract discussions and I was going to take a contract hit, I understood that. I was an injury concern and I was willing to do that. I had discussions with Bruce Arena and Chris Klein. So as soon as they took me in the re-entry draft it kind of became another issue over whether they were going to sign me or not sign me. Bruce [Arena] thought it was just the option to sign me but the league said "No the rules are you have to sign him. This is the contract you're going to give him." I don't know exactly what happened behind the scenes with the decisions but after the re-entry draft I kind of put soccer on the back burner. I was getting married in December so I stopped dealing with other things and got married. I got back from my honeymoon and there were messages from LA saying “We’re signing Cudicini and we're going to trade you somewhere.”
At that point, I knew it was time to retire. I didn't want to bounce around from team to team. I wanted stability and to settle down and build a family. My selfish days were over. Luckily, I had set up myself pretty well to move onto another career so at that point is when it happened. But I did end up signing a contract with them, which has been inaccurately reported, so I had to go through a buyout discussion. That process took longer than I hoped, not exactly how I dreamed of going out, and that's why I had to wait all the way until February to officially announce my retirement.
You talked about the difference between LA and Columbus with an attitude towards winning. Can you elaborate on where Columbus was and where LA was?
Yeah, you know there's a bunch of factors that go into it, whether it's travel arrangements, preseason arrangements, strength and conditioning, or food and nutrition. I felt like since Sigi left in 2008, all the extra little inches, all the focus on the details that we fought for and we did to gain an advantage went out the window. I don't know if that was a budgetary restraint or leadership or all of the above. I just don't know where that came from. Not to mention, all of the players, especially those from the 2008 Cup had a lot of issues with roster decisions, management of the cap, and overall professionalism of the club. But I think mostly it was the implosion of the team after 2010. Seeing not only your good friends go is tough, but to do so in order to sign a more expensive, not as good player, makes it even tougher. To some degree it’s part of the business, but I think we all agree now looking back that there was gross mismanagement that ruined the Crew from being a potential contender year in, year out like you’ve seen in Salt Lake for the past 5 years.
You had a really outstanding career with everything you accomplished but looking back is there any one regret?
No. No regrets at all! If I had only played one game and one game only I probably would have retired perfectly happy. But playing as many games as I played, playing for as long as I played, to make as many friends as I was able to make, to travel to as many countries as I traveled to… Those were all very special experiences. I mean, obviously, I can say "I wish I would have earned a cap" or "I wish I could have gone to the World Cup" or won a trophy here or a trophy there or be an all-star. All of those would have been nice but at the end of the day I'm perfectly happy. I think I maximized my potential.
What advice would you give a goalkeeper who is sitting for a year or two? You've been on both sides of that with Meola and then with Gruenebaum.
Walk a fine line of being patient and being impatient. Internally, to be impatient and don't settle to be a backup. Keep pushing yourself as far as you can. But on the outside you have to continue to bide your time and you have to continue to plug along and do all the little things that, hopefully, put you over the top of the next guy.
And where are you now? Are you still in contact with the game at all?
I'm in Raleigh, North Carolina. I work in wealth management and I still try to keep close tabs on the game. Some months are better than others. Mostly, I try to keep in touch with ex-teammates as much as possible. I'm also lucky enough to have a handful of clients that are still in the league. That's a pretty unique way for me to stay involved and to help the league grow as much as I can as a fan and financial advisor.
- "Ten Questions with Columbus Crew Goalie William Hesmer" - 2007 Interview by Wake Forest Sports
- "Crew: 'Five Questions' with William Hesmer"- 2009 interview by Shawn Mitchell
- "Hesmer Makes His Exit"- 2013 interview by Clemente Listi
- "NC Soccer Hall Of Fame To Induct Braswell, Hesmer And Kennedy"- 2013 story on Hesmer's HoF induction by Southern Soccer Scene
- "Injured Crew goalkeeper prepares for life after soccer"- 2014 interview by Adam Jardy