The morning of August 29, 2021, felt like any other game day morning.
As Eryk Williamson got up to grab his coffee and begin his preparation for that night’s Cascadia Cup clash against Seattle Sounders FC at Lumen Field, he couldn’t help but feel a little more excited for what promised to be a special afternoon. For the first time, the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC would play a double header at the same stadium.
Williamson’s excitement grew as he took the field with a team as close to full strength as it had been all season. For the first few months, player after player succumbed to long term injuries – at one point, the club's absence list stretched into double digits. That night, though, Sebastián Blanco was slated to make his first start since tearing his ACL on the same field the season before.
Personally, Williamson described the period leading up to the game as the best he had felt physically. Recently back from helping the U.S. Men’s National Team win the Gold Cup, the midfielder was excited to continue another breakout season at the club level.
Then, in the ninth minute of the match, his promising season ended abruptly as he tore the ACL in his left knee.
“That moment was so early in the game,” Williamson said. “I was buzzing, ready to go, wanting the ball and then, boom, everything happened.”
When the Sounders and Timbers face off for the first time since on July 9 as part of Heineken Rivalry Week (1:30pm PT, FOX), 314 days will have passed since the afternoon Portland’s 2-0 away win was slightly muted by yet another devastating injury. Ahead of his return to Lumen Field, Williamson discussed his recovery, leaning on teammates and everything coming full circle.
While Williamson didn’t know the severity of the injury until later, Portland’s team trainers already had a sneaking suspicion when they sprinted onto to the field last year. Out of precaution, Director of Sports Medicine Matthew Weston and then-Head Athletic Trainer Jon MacGregor, told Williamson not to walk off the field and instead get on the stretcher.
Before returning to the locker room to wait out the rest of the match, Williamson had the inflamed knee evaluated by Seattle’s Chief Medical Officer and Orthopedic Surgeon, Dr. Michael Morris – the father of Seattle forward Jordan Morris – in the bowels of the stadium. A few seasons prior, Michael Morris saw his son endure and recover from the same injury. Before Williamson left for the locker room, the elder Morris gave him words of encouragement, letting him know he would be all right.
Then, Williamson waited. Without the game shown on any screen under the stadium, he turned his phone on, enabled “do not disturb” and watched the remainder of the match in relative silence.
“I wasn’t able to actually see or look at what happened,” Williamson said. “Then [the trainers] told me and texts started coming in. I didn’t want to think about where I was in the moment, I just wanted to think about how the team was doing.”
It’s difficult to look past the symmetry in Seattle.
A year earlier, Blanco tore his ACL on the same field while Williamson put together a statement game, scoring a goal in the ninth minute and making his presence felt on both ends of the field as he continued to put himself on the radar of the USMNT. In 2021, Blanco returned to the starting 11 and scored as Williamson saw his season cut short.
When players and staff returned to the locker room after last August’s 2-0 win, they prioritized checking in on Williamson, not celebrating a crucial road win against their biggest rival. In both Spanish and English, Williamson’s teammates encouraged him to keep his head up and stay strong.
As Williamson awaited the inflammation in his knee to subside, he reached out to Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda – who both had recently tore their ACL’s – for specific advice. The midfielder asked about the surgery itself, what pain blockers they recommended and even something as specific as whether they used their patella or hamstring to help graft the repaired ACL.
“Amigo, feel it, there is no rush,” Blanco advised Williamson.
Then came the recovery, a six-month battle that tested Williamson’s physical strength and mental fortitude. In the weeks following surgery, Williamson needed to slowly re-adjust to basic movements, such as going up and down stairs and bending his knees.
Psychologically, the Timbers’ training staff established tiny goals to keep Williamson motivated during both good days and bad. Ticking off each tiny box one at a time, the midfielder slowly worked his way back onto the field, first in solo drills and then in light team training. Williamson, for his part, attacked each step of his recovery with aggression.
“[Williamson] had to experience something totally new to him,” Weston said. “For that experience, he had a great support structure, which is what we saw from day one. His mother was in to support him, he’s got the team and staff, too.”
Teammates often showed up to Williamson’s house with food and he recalls several nights in which he was watching a movie or show on his couch only to be interrupted by George Fochive, who would bring dinner and stay to keep him company. When he first injured his knee, Williamson’s mom flew out from the East Coast for a couple of weeks, helping out when her son wasn’t all that mobile.
“That’s what made the process feel smoother,” Williamson said. “Seeing how many people had my back through the moment and pushed me through.”
With a strong support system in place, Williamson focused on the lofty goal in the back of his head, one that drove him as he continued to rehab: he wanted to be healthy and at least make a case to be on coach Gregg Berhalter’s U.S. roster come the national team’s June camp.
“It was a long shot, but it was good because it put me in a position where I was still able to play and come back quickly,” Williamson said.
While anxious to return to the field and eagerly tackling the rehab process, there were still a handful of days in which Williamson struggled to remain mentally focused. Weston called those moments common among players, especially when they see progress but realize there’s a long way yet to go.
“If you’re having a rough day, just go home,” Weston occasionally told Williamson. “If you miss today, it’s not like it’s going to set you back three weeks. It’s not the end of the world.”
Those comments meant a lot to Williamson, who felt respected as a human, not just as an athlete the club needed to return to the field as quickly as possible.
“You have to have those conversations, too,” Weston said. “If I tell him to go home, he’s just going to mope at home. Do we keep him here? Do we push him here? It’s one of those art of caring things as opposed to science of caring.”
Williamson called Portland’s run to the 2021 MLS Cup “the best thing that could have happened,” even if he admits being unable to directly contribute and instead being forced to watch from the sidelines was difficult at times.
Each postseason win meant at least another few days of being able to rehab in the club’s facilities, watch training sessions and stay motivated by being around the club. Sure, he couldn’t immediately leave on vacation and enjoy a mental break, but that was the last thing he wanted as he pushed even harder in the recovery process.
Off the field, Portland’s extended run produced one of Williamson’s most memorable Thanksgivings in recent years. With most of his teammates in Colorado to face the Rapids in the MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals, Williamson remained in Portland and celebrated the holiday with Jeff Attinella, Ismaila Jome and a few other players unable to take part in the match.
Attinella brought and prepared a turkey while the rest of the group came with sides and ordered other foods from a pop-up Thanksgiving stand. After spending the holiday together, watching their club win 1-0 and advance to the Western Conference Final (with a bit of American football mixed in), they continued their rehab together the next day.
And then there was the week of the MLS Cup, which provided a crucial mental boost halfway through the recovery process. The league’s marquee match allowed Williamson to catch up with friends from around the league, like Jeremy Ebobisse, who traveled to the Pacific Northwest.
“It was perfect timing,” Williamson said. “That [time of year] is where it gets tough, staying in the gym every day and not going outside because of Portland weather. It’s nice when you have familiar faces to go home and hang out with.”
The Timbers have a specific day-by-day schedule for players rehabbing from injuries and it doesn’t often change. Players recovering from longer-term injuries figure out the rigid Monday through Thursday routine quickly and even joke they enjoy a specific day of the week much more than others.
After enduring a somewhat-lengthy recovery process from undergoing ankle surgery in 2020, Williamson knew exactly what to expect from the weekly rehab schedule but didn’t quite anticipate how quickly the repetitive process would wear on him.
Despite how tedious the seemingly endless loop became, going through a more serious rehab before helped him in small ways when it came to recovering from the ACL tear. For example, one issue Williamson never really faced was re-trusting his body, often the most difficult mental challenge for an athlete. In fact, there were several days in which the training staff needed to slow Williamson down.
“Eryk wanted to be back in five months,” Weston said. “He wants to play, but we understand it’s better from the long-term career aspect to hold him back a little longer, really making sure the strength is where it needs to be.”
The staff worked with Williamson on two to three things a day at slower speeds as he built himself back to full fitness. During the process they recorded some of the biggest moments on film, from doing a squat for the first time without cheating to walking up and down stairs without his brace.
However, nothing topped March 27, a day in which the entire process reached its crux to produce a memorable moment months in the making: Williamson’s return to game action. As he jogged onto the field late into Portland’s 1-1 draw against Orlando City, the midfielder took a moment to soak in the thunderous roar of the crowd.
“When you see them come back onto the field that first game, even if it’s five or 10 minutes, that’s a really nice sensation for everybody who has gone through the process with him,” Weston said. “When the stadium blew up for Eryk earlier this year it was awesome to see the support because we’re there to support [the players] every single day; to see the fan support as well is really cool.”
From there, Williamson’s return reached full stream. Finally, after a handful of substitute appearances, he received his first start since that night in Seattle when the Timbers hosted Real Salt Lake on April 23.
Now Williamson is beginning to get himself back in the rhythm of consistently playing. He has started six games this season and is slowly regaining the form he found before the injury. His five assists over the past seven games have already matched a career high. Against Colorado on June 25 – a 3-0 Portland win – he influenced the match in every area of the field, helping the club hold and advance the ball in possession and notched an assist. In Nashville on July 3, it was Williamson's complete performance as a second-half sub which changed the game and allowed Portland to rally from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2 in front of over 28,000 fans on the road.
"[Williamson] changed the second half," Savarese said after the draw in Nashville. "He had 45 minutes to give us and he used them very well. He managed the ball excellent and made [David] Ayala better. Credit to Eryk in how he came into the game."
On July 9, Williamson will reach the final defining step of his long recovery process: returning to Seattle and Lumen Field, the same place he suffered the gruesome injury nearly a year ago. It’s a day that excites Williamson, knowing it’s the final mental hurdle he needs to clear as he looks to put his months-long recovery behind him for good.
“I don’t think it was the field or anything surrounding Seattle,” Williamson said. “We can argue different things, but I think it’s just a matter of one unfortunate moment that led to such a big injury. There’s a bit of me that thinks this is going to be the last step. It’s a matter of knowing [the setting]; I don’t think there’s much of a mental barrier playing there, but it’s just now sinking in.”