Williamson's emergence in Portland a boost for the Timbers & U.S. U-23s
August 26, 2020
FOR MOST LEAGUES in the world, seasons that overlap with the 2020 COVID pandemic are among the most difficult to analyze for a huge variety of factors. The schedule of games has been disjointed, the players are constantly undergoing medical testing, either no crowds or small crowds are permitted, and the transfer market is tough to figure out with clubs readjusting their budgets.
Here in North America, MLS is no exception to the times and teams are trying to plod through a season after a successful MLS Is Back tournament. But one of the emerging themes since the restart in Orlando has been the important contributions from many younger domestic players. Even the Portland Timbers, who have historically been on the slower side in the league in promoting youth players, won MLS is Back on the heels of contributions from two U.S. U-23 eligible players in Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson.
While Ebobbise has been emerging in recent years, Williamson’s performance at MLS Is Back marked his arrival as a significant contributor in this league. Playing in the central midfield No. 8 position, Williamson was key for the Timbers in lifting the trophy and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League in 2021.
“I think it’s something that has been a good step in my career,” Williamson told ASN from Portland. “I have finally started to prove what I have to bring to the team. I think it is something I want to continue to grow from and I think as a team is something we all can continue to grow from – whether it is me being in there to change the game or me changing my game and developing. I want to be known as a starter for the Timbers.”
“I think it is just our competitive nature,” he added. “From the moment we went down to Orlando and it even started in Portland when we resumed group training when guys where back not only fighting for positions but battling with the message of going down to Orlando and winning this…Ultimately, we did our job but it is something to build on. Knowing the group and how great we want to be, it is really exciting to see what is going to happen moving forward.”
The path in getting here has been an interesting route for Williamson, 23, and it was not always smooth sailing. In his first professional season in 2018, he played only for the Timbers 2 team in USL. Then in that winter, he went on a brief loan to a Santa Clara team that was in Portugal’s top flight [an experience he said gave a big sense of perspective in the sport]. It wasn’t until later in 2019 when first team minutes with the Timbers began to trickle in – with seven appearances and three starts for just 232 minutes.
Now in 2020, he is playing as a regular with the Timbers and helping the club earn success on the field. But the past few seasons tested him mentally.
“It was actually very tough. I think that was the toughest part of my career so far. When I went to the U-20s and I was with Maryland, I was a starter. To go from those teams to this, it was tough mentally. At times, I found myself frustrated. But then the guys around me reiterated not to be frustrated and that I needed to control what I could control. Guys like Jeremy [Ebobisse] – who wasn’t playing but then over the last two years has knocked it out of the park… I would pick his brain and see how he felt and what the best thing to do was.”
While it hasn’t always been visible to fans, Williamson has grown a lot as a player since when many saw him at the 2017 U-20 World Cup and his time now as a first-team regular with the Timbers. When he first started college at the University of Maryland he was often used as a forward or a very advanced attacking midfielder. But at Maryland under Sasho Cirovski, he was taught to become a more well-rounded midfielder while embracing his defensive skills.
Then with the U.S. U-20 team, that was also emphasized by head coach Tab Ramos who used Williamson and Tyler Adams in dual No. 8 roles as the team advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2017 U-20 World Cup. It was also playing along with Adams where he also learned more specifics as to how to be a complete midfielder.
“I was a dual No. 8 with Tyler Adams and I adopted some things from in in the way he defends and the way he gets after things right away,” Williamson explained. “That is something I continue to work on. Naturally, attacking is something that I love to do but also be flexible and defend. Playing deeper with the ball is something I am proud of in terms of being flexible. It is also something I think will go a long way with this team in terms of being able to play different positions and do multiple things to help the team.”
Williamson’s emergence with Portland under head coach Gio Savarese is coming at an ideal time for him on the international front. In March, the U.S. U-23 team saw its Olympic qualifying tournament postponed and then the Olympics were put off until the summer of 2021. Williamson was not on that qualifying team with Hassani Dotson, Jackson Yueill, Djordje Mihailovic, Brenden Aaronson, Paxton Pomykal, and Richard Ledezma making it as the team’s mifielders.
But a lot has changed in 2020 and the hierarchy of midfielders in late 2020 and early 2021 won’t be the same as it was in March 2020. Williamson is in a far better position now than he was and U.S. U-23 head coach Jason Kreis was on hand in Orlando for the MLS is Back tournament and spoke with Williamson after a group stage game to offer positive feedback.
“It was something that I was kind of frustrated with myself about – nothing having a chance to prove what I could bring to the team,” Williamson said. “I feel like it wasn’t there during the first few camps that I was called into. Now with it being delayed and knowing what I have to do, it brings a lot more motivation to myself in terms of knowing I have so much more to prove… I want to make the decision hard on the staff.”
Making the U-23 team, which will likely consistent of mostly domestic players for qualifying, will still be hard for Williamson. Williamson is just one of many young players who has used the MLS restart to make important strides in his career.
While the competitive nature runs deep, Williamson is happy to see the recent developments in the league and it was a talking point among many of the league’s younger players in Orlando. While designated players often bring star-power and headlines, the growth of American players inside the country’s top domestic league is an important step for growth of the sport.
“Seeing other guys and talking to Brenden [Aaronson] when we played him, knowing what he’s done. I told him ‘as an American, I am glad you’re killing it. Keep doing your thing.’ Mark McKenzie too. We’ve all been in and around the youth national teams and all playing together. It’s nice to finally be playing against each other. We all knew each other coming into youth national team camps and playing with each other. It’s different suiting up against each other in the league. Guys were really motivated in Orlando and I am happy that it showed throughout the league – that Americans were there to prove themselves. Give credit to all who did. It’s exciting times for the youth movement here in the league.”