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SSFC Spotlight: Eryk Williamson bouncing back from injury

The midfielder missed out on return to USMNT.

SOCCER: MAY 07 MLS - Portland Timbers at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Gregg Berhalter named his squad for the upcoming United States Men’s National Team camp, he noted a few players who were “considered but ultimately” not selected. One of the talents on the bubble is Eryk Williamson, who made his senior debut during last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. The 24-year-old midfielder is coming off a long-term injury layoff and working his way back to full fitness with the Portland Timbers. His career has been on a steady upward trajectory, aided by the stability of staying at the same club.

Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Williamson played with the Arlington Soccer Association and led T.C. Williams High School to the state title, scoring in the final. He then joined the D.C. United Academy before matriculating to the powerful University of Maryland program. Over three years, the forward-turned-midfielder made 58 appearances, contributing 14 goals and 13 assists, praised for “making the most imaginative and complex ideas look easy.” His junior season concluded with being named Big Ten Conference Midfielder of the Year and selected All-Big Ten First Team and a Third Team All-American.

After turning professional, the Portland Timbers acquired his rights from D.C. United, with the latter club was “unable to agree to contract terms.” His new outfit believed he was “capable of further growth and development” due to his “forward thinking” and “aggressive mindset.” Williamson was linked with a move to Schalke but reportedly never received an official offer.

In his first season, with the club preaching patience, Williamson played mostly with the reserves in the USL Championship. He made his first-team debut in the U.S. Open Cup against the San Jose Earthquakes. In August, Portland sent him on loan to Primeira Liga side CD Santa Clara “for the 2018-19 season with the ability to recall the player in January,” with the plan to give him a “further challenge.”

The time overseas was a tough experience reportedly without the luxuries of heat, hot showers, and Wi-Fi. “It didn’t go as expected, but I learned a lot,” he told Yahoo! Sports. “I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone on the team, [and] didn’t know anything about the country. I learned that it’s not about how comfortable you are. You have to work hard even if you’re not the happiest on the field.”

After staying on the sidelines in Portugal, Williamson returned to Portland, with the club flying him back to the United States to experience an MLS Cup final appearance from the sideline. In his second season, he made the most of his opportunities with the reserves and enjoyed an increase in playing time at the senior level toward the end of the schedule. Portland considered him a “technically-adept talent” and focused on his continuing development, determining his best fit in the midfield.

The 2020 season was something of a breakout year for Williamson, described as a “key player” when the Timbers won the MLS is Back Tournament. He made 26 appearances across all competitions, contributing three goals and four assists. The club renewed his contract, rewarding him with a “multi-year extension” after a “tough” and “frustrating” adjustment to the professional game, with an eye on an eventual move to Europe. Ferencvárosi from Hungary had a $1.5 million transfer bid rejected, while other suitors expressed interest.

“I think it’s something that has been a good step in my career,” Williamson shared with American Soccer Now. “I have finally started to prove what I have to bring to the team. I think it is something I want to continue to grow from and I think as a team is something we all can continue to grow from – whether it is me being in there to change the game or me changing my game and developing. I want to be known as a starter for the Timbers.”

He continued his progress last year, firmly entrenched in the starting lineup. Unfortunately, his season was derailed in August, suffering a tear to his left cruciate ligament when “planting awkwardly while turning to pass the ball.” The injury required a successful surgery and eight months of rehabilitation, with Williamson returning to the field this past March.

Williamson has slowly but surely regained his spot in the starting lineup, playing in nine out the Timbers’ last ten matches. Deployed as a holding midfielder, he registered two assists in the past week. The club considers him a “very important component” who grew from developing prospect into a cornerstone of the formation.

At the international level, Williamson was a regular with youth teams for the United States program. While still in college, he played in every match at the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and U-20 World Cup, winning the title and reaching the quarterfinal, respectively. Jason Kreis’ decision to not include him during the failed Olympic Qualifying campaign in 2021 was a source of controversy, looking “worse by the day.” His senior debut came in last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. The midfielder featured in four matches, including starting in the final, a 1-0 victory over Mexico.

A flexible box-to-box midfielder, his “very clever” game has been compared to Darlington Nagbe with the “ability to dribble through lines” and score the occasional wondergoal. He prefers attacking but can also play deeper in the formation and distribute a tackle, described as “hard to knock off the ball” and “frequently seen surging past opponents.” In matches with the USMNT, observers noted his abilities to effectively facilitate possession and draw fouls.

“He’s so good on the ball and has that explosive first step,” a source told ESPN. “Some people are turned off by Eryk because it looks like he’s coasting, and other people look at his ability to pick and choose his moments to influence the game and think, ‘Yeah, this kid’s special.’ That [Olympic qualifying] group needed someone with special quality and they didn’t have it.”

Williamson’s injury came at an inopportune time for his international career, shortly after making his senior team breakthrough. He appeared to be inching toward an increased role with the USMNT but missed out on a crucial eight months of experience in the midst of qualifying. While unlikely to make the roster for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, continued strong performances with Portland could put him in position to be an important player during the next cycle.