Eryk Williamson #3, Timbers @ Seattle, 9.6.20

On a night where the Portland Timbers lost one of their most important players, one of 2020’s rising stars lifted his game to a new level, with Eryk Williamson’s man of the match-caliber performance lifting his team to a 2-1 victory over Seattle Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field.

The victory came after Portland went 0-2-1 in the first three games of Major League Soccer’s restarted regular season. It also came after Sebastián Blanco, Player of the Tournament at last month’s MLS is Back Tournament, left the game in the second minute after an injury to his right knee.

The win also came after Williamson played a decisive part in both of his team’s goals. In the ninth minute, the midfielder collected a clearance outside Seattle’s penalty area before playing a one-two sequence with captain Diego Valeri, finishing past Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei after being played behind the Seattle defense.

In the 83rd minute, it was Williamson’s turn to play creator, perfectly weighting a through ball for Felipe Mora to set up the game’s winning goal.

“That’s what we want,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked for his thoughts on Williamson’s night. “Sometimes, he finds those spaces going forward. He did a great job today to find them …

“A lot of the good play that he showed today offensively and a lot of the discipline defensively that he provided definitely gave us a lot of balance. He had a very good match, like every other player today who sacrificed for each other to get the result that we had.”

It was Williamson’s most productive game in MLS – the first time he’d scored and, as such, the first time he’d recorded a goal and an assist in the same game. That it came in the wake of Blanco’s injury made the performance even more relevant. In a game destined to be close – the type of game where Blanco has often made a difference – the Timbers had lost their most dangerous attacking player. If the team was going to score, someone else would have to be the hero.

Williamson practically volunteered. In collecting the ninth-minute clearance at the edge of Portland’s attacking zone, Williamson also deftly moved around Sounders Designated Player João Paulo, eliminating him from the play before racing through Seattle’s defense. He outmaneuvered one of the other team’s stars, and though there wasn’t a similar, cornerstone moment to his late-match assist, the pass came after a period of time where Williamson was among the game’s most dangerous players. His charges with the through Seattle’s midfield were forcing the Sounders to collapse on him, lest he break the game open.

When that break finally happened seven minutes from full time, Williamson had his first signature performance. He was the best player on the field in a derby between Portland and Seattle.

“Getting more comfortable, getting more reps with the group, we’re ultimately getting more confident in each other,” Williamson explained, talking about the desire to “be able to control the tempo and the pace of the game, that’s what we need to get back to: being on the front foot; being the ones who are dictating the tempo of the game.”

Of course, Williamson wasn’t alone. Valeri had his assist, Mora had his third goal in as many games, while goalkeeper Steve Clark made key, late-first half saves on Jordan Morris and Raúl Ruidíaz. Early in the second half, near goals from Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Jeremy Ebobisse showed the control Seattle had through much of the first half wouldn't stay on the other side of intermission. Like so many games during the MLS is Back Tournament, Portland seemed to come out of halftime improved, making small adjustments which, over a second 45 minutes, created small, winning margins.

“The key factor was how in-tune everybody was with each other,” Savarese said, “and how well we moved the ball from one side to the other; how we took the space that we wanted to find in order to create opportunities; and the fight all the way through the end from the players. Whoever came into the game got the job done, and they sacrificed for each other.”

The defending is worth particular note. Over the previous three games, the Timbers had conceded 10 goals, with the variety of success opponents had hinting the problems were more mental than tactical. On Sunday, without any obvious changes to tactics, personnel or approach, Portland gave a much improved defensive performance, with the Sounders’ only goal coming off the second phase of a corner kick.

“When we defend all together, and we’re on the same page, then we’re a difficult team to be broken down,” said Savarese. “We showed that again today.”

Again, it was reminiscent of Orlando. There were issues with the team’s defending, and had Clark not come up big twice in the first half, tonight’s narratives could have been similar to the three games before. But the bend-don’t-break feel the team had at MLS is Back won out again in Seattle. Though the team wasn’t perfect, they also never trailed.

In that way, it was a very Timbers performance, from the execution on the field to the narratives around the result. With their recent losses, Portland had let their backs be pushed up against the wall again, creating a scenario where another loss would be cause for true worry. Yet when that breaking point seemed imminent, the team prevailed. And they did so against one of the league’s best teams, on the road, in a rivalry match with no MLS parallel.

The team still has its “any given day” feel – something that’s not always a good thing over the last few seasons. But when that given day has a team like the Sounders on the opposite bench, and the Timbers feel like they’re out of excuses, that day often sees Portland playing close to their potential.

Now the Timbers have to reassess. Blanco will be examined again on Monday, and while all undoubtedly hope for the best, replays showed reason to expect the worst. Likewise, central defender Larrys Mabiala had to leave the game at halftime, while Diego Chara’s late-game yellow card means, thanks to earning four other bookings this year, Portland’s talisman will be unavailable next Sunday at Los Angeles FC.

Still, Portland overcame similar obstacles tonight. And as they’ve shown throughout the summer, the team has players who are capable of stepping up. As the Timbers reminded everyone in Seattle, the team’s mentality is often as important as the personnel.