PORTLAND, Ore. — By the time Eryk Williamson touched down, it was only 12 hours before kickoff, but he wouldn't be playing. He wasn't officially on the Portland Timbers' roster, even though he'd joined the club 11 months earlier. It was Atlanta, it was December — it was the 2018 MLS Cup final. It was also the first time Williamson had seen his teammates in months.
"I know that right when I landed, a few guys ran into me," Williamson remembers about arriving at the team's hotel. "They were acting like they saw a ghost."
Instead of finishing his first professional season in Portland, Williamson was playing in Portugal, having gone on loan to C.D. Santa Clara after spending a half-season in the United Soccer League, with Timbers 2. One year after his last game at the University of Maryland, Williamson was spending much of his time alone in Ponta Delgada, a city on São Miguel Island, located roughly 740 miles off Portugal's west coast.
"I felt distant from the club. I felt distant from friends and family," Williamson says. He felt adrift at the end of year one.
Two years later, Williamson has inked an uncommonly long deal. Coming off a breakthrough season back with the Timbers, the 23-year-old midfielder has signed a multi-year contract extension, one that makes that Atlanta day feel much longer than two years ago.
Photo: Sam Ortega-Portland Timbers 2
Williamson's first year with Portland hadn't been easy. After leaving school and switching coasts when Portland acquired his Homegrown player rights from D.C. United, Williamson was asked to spend most of his time at T2. The same was happening to Jeremy Ebobisse, somebody he knew from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area and youth national team camps, as well as Marvin Loría, a player who had spent time with Portuguese giants Benfica before arriving in Portland. An influx of resources after the winter trade of Darlington Nagbe had shifted the Timbers' roster model. Depth was pushing MLS-caliber talent down to Timbers 2.
"It was definitely tough coming out of school, not playing and being part of the first team," Williamson admits, but "at the end of the day, I needed to become a pro." In 2018, that process eventually landed him in Portugal, where he never made an appearance with Santa Clara.
Before his departure, the talent at Timbers 2 had become an subject of questions for the club's first-team coach, Giovanni Savarese. His response about why players like Ebobisse, Loría and Williamson weren't getting more MLS minutes was usually the same. The club valued all those players, was invested in them, and didn't see their time at T2 as an indictment on potential. Instead, their development would take time. Ebobisse's time would come before MLS Cup, when he claimed his spot as the team's starting striker. Loría began earning regular time the following season.
Williamson would later say Ebobisse's experience, as well as his teammate's guidance, helped convince him Portland's management could work. Before departing for Portugal, though, things weren't so certain. That's where Atlanta proved important. At a time when Timbers management would have been justified focusing on the team in Georgia, Williamson saw an effort to keep him connected. The distance between him and the team started to shrink. He felt involved.
"I think from the time I landed until kickoff, it might have been 12 hours," he recalls. "I had landed that morning in Atlanta, and the game was at night. Flying out the next day was my 24 hours."
"It meant a lot for me that they worked their tails off to get me there. We didn't win, but knowing that I was able to be in that atmosphere, be in and around the guys, being in this brotherhood that we have as a team was massive for me. More so emotionally than I would say physically, in terms of my career. I was able to connect and be a part of it."
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers
Atlanta became the first time Williamson and the Timbers had to show their commitment to each other. The club did so by making him a part of their moment. He did so by returning the next season and committing to the process. In 2019, he would again begin the season with Timbers 2, but by year's end, he had made seven appearances and three starts with the MLS squad. In 2020, he broke out, claiming a starting spot in midfield and playing 1412 minutes. Only five Timbers played more.
|Williamson career stats (MLS/USL)|
After that performance, it was time for another commitment, and both sides have done so in a significant way. With a multi-year extension, Williamson has tied himself to Portland into the prime of his career.
"They had said that they believed in me ...," Williamson says, remembering the words from his first year in Portland. "This is them now proving it. I've expressed from the moment I got here, this is where I want to be. Ultimately, I saw my career here … Them showing the commitment is massive to what we're building here and what we have going as we move forward."
It also shows 2018's words were more than just thoughts for a moment. When Williamson was loaned to Santa Clara, Savarese's official statement noted his midfielder had "shown he has great abilities," and time abroad "should afford him the opportunity to come back an even better player.” Today, team president Gavin Wilkinson reflected on that "better player."
“Signing Eryk has been a key objective of the club’s for the past 12 months," Wilkinson explained, "and we are delighted that Eryk’s belief in the club mirrors our belief in him,"
And for that "better player," learning his work led to a new commitment will always be a signature moment.
"I remember telling guys, calling family: 'Hey, Mom. This is going on," he says, remembering his reaction to Portland's multi-year offer. "I couldn't control myself for the first two hours.
"I've had to work hard this year. I thought it was a decent year. Now, it's being rewarded."