Savarese, on Williamson's injury: "It was a little bit of déjà vu”

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BEAVERTON, Ore. — One day after the Portland Timbers announced Eryk Williamson, one of the team’s starting midfielders, would miss the rest of the 2021 season, Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese held his regular, pregame video conference, this time ahead of Portland’s Friday visit to the Houston Dynamo. It only took one question for the session's focus to turn to Williamson, as well as the player's torn left anterior cruciate ligament.

“That was the most disappointing thing that we had from that game,” Savarese said, alluding to his team’s 2-0, Sunday victory at the Seattle Sounders. “And it happening to Eryk the same way that it happened to [Sebastián Blanco]. It was a little bit of déjà vu.”

Eleven months after another Timbers standout, Blanco, tore his right ACL at Lumen Field, the Timbers made their first visit to Seattle. Blanco scored and the team won on a day that, in some ways, may have felt too familiar. Last year, it was Williamson scoring after Blanco departed, with the Timbers going on to win, 2-1.

“It is very unfortunate, because Eryk has been working so hard to be able to grow as a player,” Savarese said. “To be able to put himself in good situations, as we saw when he was called up to the National Team, to participate in the Gold Cup, winning it, starting in the final, [then] coming back with so much desire to do well with us. He is a very important player for us.”

Williamson had been one of Portland's best player since breaking into the team’s starting lineup before the 2020 MLS Is Back tournament. Since then, he solidified his place in the team’s central midfield, earned a new, long-term contract from the Timbers, and worked his way into his country’s national team. His appearances at this summer’s Gold Cup were his first as a senior United States international.

“Now, there's the other part,” Savarese explained. “There's himself. He's a young player with things happening in a good way at this moment, then all of a sudden, you get injured with an ACL. Now, you have to go through the whole process.”

Williamson gave his first insights into that process on Tuesday, where he confirmed to the world that his absence would be prolonged. “Why me, why now,” he asked, rhetorically, in his Instagram post. “As much as I want to sit here dwelling and feeling bad for myself, I know the comeback starts now.”

Unfortunately, the Timbers are growing too familiar with ACL recoveries. For Blanco, the process cost him nine months. He was out from September through June. Jaroslaw Niezgoda, another Timber who suffered a torn ACL last fall, also missed nine months. He returned to the field in August.

“For us, [Williamson’s injury is] difficult,” Savarese confessed, “because it's the third one in less than a year with important players, and it's very unfortunate.”

If Williamson’s recovery is anything like Blanco’s or Niezgoda’s, he should be back next spring. The “if,” there, might be the most important word. The Timbers have not given a timeline for Williamson’s return, nor are they likely to this early in the process.

For now, Portland have to adjust to a world where Williamson is not an option. They can’t be certain when he’ll return.

“We have players,” Savarese said, when asked about his plans in central midfield. “We have Renzo Zambrano. We have [George] Fochive. We have Paredes, [Diego] Chara, who has been playing. [Bill] Tuiloma.

“We have these players that can come into the position. Not to perform in the way Eryk did — Eryk is a very unique player, we're going to miss him — but we just have to make sure that we cover with the players that I mentioned, in one way or another, depending on what we want to do on the field on that particular day. But at least we have those options.”

Deciding on a lineup is the easy part of Williamson’s injury. Coaches have to adjust to absences all the time. The more difficult part will be the process Blanco and Niezgoda just came through: a successful surgery; a healthy recovery; the monotonous rehab, often done in isolation; and then, restoring confidence. As with any major injury, Williamson’s recovery will be about more than how the physical part heals.

“The good thing is that all the players have been talking to him,” Savarese said. “People from other teams, players, coaches have reached out to him as well to give their advice.

“We're going to keep him very close to us in order to make sure that we can get him back playing. That way, he can come back in stronger.”

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