OBETZ, Ohio — Lloyd Sam, one of the premier wingers in MLS over the last few years, was nowhere to be found in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Where did he go? The same abyss that many right-sided midfielders have fallen into this season.
“It was like Revis Island,” said Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp, referring to the nickname for the area of the field NFL cornerback Darrelle Revis used to shut down wide receivers.
The it that Trapp is referring to is the part of the field patrolled by Crew left back Waylon Francis. The same location Francis will be looking to own again in Sunday’s MLS Cup Final against the Portland Timbers.
One of the bigger challenges the Timbers will have is trying to find a way to beat Francis defensively. Trying to stop Francis from setting up scoring chances on the other side of the field won’t be easy either.
Since signing with the Crew in November 2013, Francis has been one of the best left backs in MLS, if not the best. In a league where fullback has long been considered a weak position, the 25-year-old Francis has shone with his two-way play and consistency in Columbus. He normally defends very well – as was the case in shutting down Sam for the better part of 180 minutes in the last series vs. the New York Red Bulls – and also gets forward to add to the attack.
“Truthfully, when you come to a new country, you have to know the reason why you’re coming,” Francis told SBI on Wednesday following the Crew’s morning training session. “It’s not just about coming here simply to make money. It’s about coming here to try and help the team, and that’s what I’ve come here to do in the United States: to win the respect of my teammates and the league. That’s what’s helped make me the person I am today.”
Francis and the Crew are hoping he adds to his ever-growing reputation in MLS on Sunday afternoon when he is likely to face up against winger Dairon Asprilla, talented Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri, and attacking right back Alves Powell. While helping slow them down and trying to get involved in the attack is no easy challenge, there is also the pressure of playing for a championship crown in front of a sold-out home crowd that fully expects a victory from the Crew.
None of that fazes Francis, however. The 5-foot-9 defender has played in multiple cup finals before – four, in fact – and is planning to lean on the experience gained from each of those matches when he faces the Timbers.
Of course, playing for the MLS Cup is not the same as competing for trophies in his native land with Herediano.
“All finals are going to always be different, they’re always all going to have a different flavor,” said Francis. “It’s simply about being mentally prepared and knowing what you’re playing for.”
This might be Francis’ first time playing for the most-coveted prize in MLS, but he is fully aware of what is at stake. Having won two titles and lost a chance to claim two others during his pair of years at Herediano from 2012-13, Francis has felt both joy and agony, bliss and despair. He knows what it is like to raise a trophy over his head, and also what it is like to have it slip away.
In fact, Francis’ most recent appearance in a cup final ended in defeat back in December 2013 vs. Alajuelense. He has not forgotten that painful defeat, of course, but it has helped mold him, push him into becoming the type of well-rounded foreigner that can step into MLS and immediately find success.
Most other imports take some time to transition into the league, needing to adapt both to the play on the field and the lifestyle and culture off of it. Francis did not require such a grace period, however. He started 24 games in his debut MLS season in 2014, dished out six assists, and impressed with his defensive skills. This year has been more of the same, with Francis recording a combined seven assists in 28 matches while helping the Crew to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference in the regular season.
The reason for that seamless adjustment? His determined attitude.
“Waylon embraced it. He embraced the challenge,” said Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter. “He clearly had a goal in mind, and he wanted to step up to a different level and succeed. We knew that from Day 1. I didn’t bring him in personally – it was (former club technical director) Brian Bliss who brought him in – but immediately I saw working with him that he has ability and he has this mental toughness that you know he’s going to succeed.”
Francis is not only focused and driven because he wants to develop as a player, but also because he enjoys being talked about positively. Francis enjoys public adoration, from both press and fans, and he has no reservations about.
You can see that clearly on his Twitter handle, where he retweets complimentary and congratulatory messages directed at him at a much higher rate than he composes his own. You can get a sense for it when he acknowledges that he has heard the conversations about him being arguably the best left back in MLS.
Or you can simply ask him about it.
“It’s important for people to see your work, that’s always going to be important,” said Francis. “If they say it, it’s because they know what they see and what they have seen from my statistics. I think it’s important that they talk well about you.”
There’s no shortage of that on his club. Not after following up his solid showing in 2014 with another equally-impressive campaign in 2015.
“I think they missed him on (MLS) Best XI,” said Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark.
As impressive as Francis has been for Columbus, it has yet to translate into more opportunities for Costa Rica. Francis was on the Costa Rican squad that surprised at the 2014 World Cup by reaching the quarterfinals, but he has made only two appearances internationally to date.
He yearns to be as important for Los Ticos as he is for the Crew, especially after being left off the CONCACAF Gold Cup roster this summer and seeing call-ups come sporadically in recent months.
“I’ve always wanted to be with the national team, but I’ve got to keep working so that when the time comes I can do a good job,” said Francis.
While breaking into Costa Rica’s lineup is a goal of Francis, all his focus is on the short term. He has an MLS Cup final to play this weekend, and wants to once again experience the sweet feeling of becoming a champion.
Turning in another good shift on both sides of the ball would do wonders for the Crew’s chances to prevail over the Timbers, and the club expects nothing less from its stout left back.
“He’s been doing it all year,” said Parkhurst. “Although he gets a lot of credit for his assists and going forward and he plays great balls into the box, defensively he’s been getting better and better. It’s fantastic to watch and hopefully he has another great one on Sunday.”