20210701 eryk williamson

For those who’ve watched his ascent, it feels absurd to be reminded: Eryk Williamson has never been capped by his senior national team.

Over the last year, the 24-year-old midfielder has emerged as one of the better central midfielders in Major League Soccer, but he’s yet to fully break into the United States men’s national team. Whether the senior team or the under-23 squad selected for the Olympic qualifying, the Timbers star has missed out. While that’s led to some great content, like this post after a standout performance at San Jose …

… it’s also left some confusion. What else does Williamson need to do?

Today, that changed. As announced this morning, Williamson will be part of the U.S. team at this month’s Concacaf Gold Cup. Shortly after tonight’s game, Williamson will join head coach Gregg Berhalter’s squad and leave the Timbers for what will likely be the entire month. Gold Cup starts on July 10, runs through August 1, and the U.S. usually makes it pretty far.

Why This Matters … for Williamson

There are implications to losing a player like Williamson, but those are good problems for a team to have. They certainly shouldn’t be considered ahead of what this means for the player. Most professional soccer players dream of a day like this, when they officially breaking into their national team. The closer they get to that level, the more that dream morphs into a want. For Williamson to get this chance after being so close must feel like a tremendous breakthrough.

Perhaps this next part can go without saying, but let’s not take the chance: This selection is well-deserved. Since becoming a regular starter for Portland at last summer’s MLS Is Back tournament, Williamson has emerged as one of the team’s most important players. Once you account for Diego Chara’s contributions, Williamson might be the team’s most important part. His presence in the middle has become the Timbers’ most reliable, most consistent connecting force, and his ability to contribute penalty box-to-penalty box, sideline-to-sideline has proven especially valuable amid a depleted roster.

How We Got Here

Williamson’s four goals and six primary assists over the last two seasons (31 games, 2173 minutes) are strong totals. They’re stronger still when you see the team’s other goalscorers and playmakers – people first in line to claim those numbers. Williamson’s primary jobs don’t revolve around goals and assists, but his name still ends up in the boxscore.

Dig beyond the traditional numbers, though, and Williamson has an impressive profile. He’s completed 85.1 percent of his passes in that time, while according to StatsBomb, his rate of goals, assists, dribbles, progressive carries and interceptions are all, for his position, within the league’s 85th percentile. Those may not be the type of numbers you bring up at the pub, but then again, maybe we should be elevating our pubs.

His is the type of profile we see from players like the LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget, or the Seattle Sounders’ Cristian Roldan. Lletget has been capped 24 times; Roldan, 20. San Jose’s Jackson Yueill has also made 12 appearances for the U.S. You could argue those players’ national-team places explains why Williamson has had to wait, but there is a huge difference between 24, 20, 12 and then … 0. Williamson’s come on strong over the last year, but it feels like he should have had this chance, before.

1-ON-1 | Williamson joins Zivin to talk new deal, 2021

Why This Matters … for the Timbers

For the Timbers, that’s worked out fine. They’ve enjoyed Williamson’s ascent without interruption. But at some point, even if it means missing a month of games, you want your guys to be acknowledged. Even when injuries thin you out, or absences for other tournaments test your squad, you want people’s work to pay off. Williamson’s callup is mostly about his work, but it also reflects the time coaches, trainers and staff have put into creating a platform.

For the next month, there’ll be more room on that platform for players like Renzo Zambrano and George Fochive – the next central midfielders on the team’s depth chart. They’ll compete for time next to Chara. Bill Tuiloma may be in that mix, too — we saw what he did on Saturday when moved into midfield — as well as Cristhian Paredes, who is due back soon. As we saw in 2019, Paredes can be a starting midfielder at this level.

There is also the option of using players like Yimmi Chara or Sebastián Blanco in the middle. The Timbers went with that look earlier this year when they briefly shifted to a pure 4-3-3 formation. Instead of playing two deep-lying midfielders, they went with two eights above a six, occasionally choosing more attack-minded players for those roles. Though Portland did that in the absence of Diego Chara, Williamson’s departure could cast El Padrino in that defensive role, giving the Timbers’ staff more reason to be aggressive with their choices higher up. LINK

There’s a valuable piece missing here, though. Through the season’s first weeks, Andy Polo was back in Peru, kept away while navigating the bureaucracy of his return from abroad. Once he joined the team, Polo became a viable option in the middle, where he started playing semi-regularly last summer. Now out for the season after suffering a major leg injury, Polo’s absence will loom larger. Especially in a shape like the 4-3-3, where he would still have two players behind him during his bursts forward, Polo would be valuable.

Even without him, Portland should have enough options, particularly given the team has 15 days tonight’s match in Austin and July 16th’s visit from Dallas. That gives Paredes more time, Blanco more time, and gives us more reason to enjoy Williamson getting his call.

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