BEAVERTON, Ore. – From the outside, Eryk Williamson’s first year in the Rose City seemed to ask as many questions as it answered, with the first-year professional from the University of Maryland spending most of his time in the United Soccer League, with Timbers 2. But any doubt about the midfielder’s long-term place with T2’s parent team, MLS’ Portland Timbers, were answered long before he returned, this month, from a half-year loan in Portugal.
It was early December, as his team prepared for 2018’s MLS Cup, when Williamson found himself in Atlanta, flown in by the Timbers even though he was officially with C.D. Santa Clara in the Portuguese top tier. That duty, however, took a back seat for two days, as he spent the most important moments of Portland’s season back with the club.
“It meant a lot,” Williamson said last week, speaking after a Timbers preseason training session, about his time at MLS Cup. “I was following the team. I was staying up until two in the morning, trying to watch the games.
“It meant a lot that they did what they could to get me there. I was more than happy to be there, and I was more than happy to be back.”
That feeling seems to persist now, as the 21-year-old attends his first full training camp with Portland. He was with the team last winter, too, but was pulled away by responsibilities with the U.S. Under-20 national team after his late-January acquisition from D.C. United.
Having left school after Maryland’s 2017 season, Williamson arrived as a fish out of water, eventually spending time with the Timbers, T2 and Santa Clara during a challenging professional debut.
That he was part of so many setups over the last year – an MLS team’s; a first-division squad in Portugal; a U.S. U-level stop – speaks to how highly the skilled playmaker is regarded. How that translates into earning time in a Timbers central midfield crowded with returning talents like Diego Chara, David Guzmán, Andrés Flores and Cristhian Paredes makes learning from 2018 all the more important.
“Last year, it was a brand-new staff,” Williamson said, alluding to head coach Giovanni Savarese and his assistants, “and I was brand new, as well. It was setting my identity.
“Now, they know me, a little. They know what I need to work on.”
Williamson’s transient 2018 is exemplified, on one level, by his relationship with Timbers assistant coach Miles Joseph; or, his lack of one. Added to Savarese’s staff midseason, Joseph has become an integral part of Portland’s technical staff, but he only experienced a couple of weeks with Williamson before the midfielder left on loan. Now, Joseph is playing a key part in Williamson’s return.
“I knew Miles for, maybe, two weeks before I left, and I’ve already talked to him about setting goals for this year,” he said, with Joseph serving as one of many examples of Williamson’s 2018 reality. “We can already see it in training. He’s continued to push me.
“Those little things where I have a coaching staff that I already know, that can continue to push me and know my game. I think it’s huge, coming into this year that I have a little more familiar faces, in terms of coaching.”
What that process produces on the field is a question that remains, even if Williamson’s time in Portugal has given the Alexandria, Virginia, native a more refined view. Between his years at Maryland and his contributions internationally, some projected Williamson as a potential attacking midfielder. Others see him as more of a central, connecting force, while others still have wondered whether his future is as a winger, presumably one that would play a wide-to-in role.
The commonality among those visions, though, is the primacy of Williamson’s technique. Though he has yet to log his first MLS minutes, training sessions with Timbers mainstays portray him as one of the club’s most technically-adept talents. Whatever vision you have for Williamson, it likely involves getting him on the ball.
“I believe, position-wise, it’s more of a 10, playmaker kind of role,” he says, when asked about his ideal position. And yet, it’s not so simple.
“But at the same time, I like getting the ball off the back. So, I think eight is my perfect position, where I can join the attack, but I can also get the ball off the defenders. That’s one thing I learned in Portugal. I want to be the player connecting the back to the front, doing box-to-box defending and attacking.”
During his first year in Portland, all of those qualities surfaced. He began T2’s campaign as a deep-lying midfielder, pairing with Venezuelan international Renzo Zambranoin head coach Cameron Knowles’ double pivot, in front of the team’s defense. As T2’s tactics, selection, and roster evolved, Williamson moved higher on the field, into a number 10’s role. But even that wasn’t set in stone. As T2 pushed toward the top of USL’s Western Conference during the middle of their season, Williamson’s ability to go out right, swapping with winger Marvin Loría on one side, or drift left, allowing Jack Barmby to come inside from the other, not only gave Knowles flexibility but allowed Williamson, when needed, to go find the ball.
"You look at guys like Chara," Williamson explains. "I use him as an example. He’ll win the ball, and next thing you know, he’s scoring the goal, as well. I’m using that as a role model in terms of how I want to use my game and continue to push myself."
The three goals and two assists he accumulated in 15 starts don’t capture his impact. With him, Zambrano and Andre Lewis in midfield, T2 had an ability to protect possession and build play that few Western Conference rivals could match. And in his departure, Williamson’s void proved difficult to fill.
“In the USL, you can get away with a couple of bad touches,” Williamson said, when asked about translating his technical quality to MLS’ higher level. “But as I learned from being in Portugal, being [in training with the Timbers], you can’t take those one-to-two plays off. It’s 90 minutes of focus. Ninety minutes of making sure you’re technical, making sure you’re fighting.
“The USL is a good transition, coming from college. I felt like I was fine, in the USL, but I obviously want to continue to push myself to the point where I’m getting solid minutes in the MLS.”
The subtext beneath those words is experience, and if there’s one thing anybody can point to justify why, for Williamson, 2019 will be better than 2018, it’s the assimilation of those lessons from a year ago. It’s the trial by fire that he put himself through when he elected to turn pro, then elected to push himself in Portugal. It’s the feeling of camaraderie that he had when he rejoined his team last December, in Atlanta, and it’s the comfort, as well as the confidence, he’s exuded into the second week of preseason, in both his play and his words.
Until he breaks through with Portland’s first team, there are going to be questions, from the outside, about Eryk Williamson. Those things are unavoidable, when you’re dealing with a player of his talent. This year, though, Williamson’s ready to tackle those questions head on. And after the crucible of 2018, he’s better prepared to do so.