For the Portland Timbers, the symmetry only made the outcome more agonizing.
Nearly a year apart to the day, against the same opponent on the same field, the Timbers watched on helplessly as a key player went down in agony clutching their knee after a non-contact injury.
Just as in the first scenario, the nightmare was soon confirmed: US men's national team midfielder Eryk Williamson suffered a torn ACL against the Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field on Sunday night, a year on from Sebastian Blanco experiencing the same cruel fate. Sunday also happened to mark just Blanco's second start since his injury.
“It happened to Eryk the same way it happened to Seba," head coach Gio Savarese told media on a virtual press conference. His voice somber, shaking his head at the mention of the injury. "It was really deja vu."
It's been blow after blow for the Timbers this year, with an overwhelming number of key players missing time due to injury. Blanco and fellow Designated Player Jaroslaw Niezgoda came into the season injured, with Niezgoda yet to make his first start. There was a period in which the club had to sign goalkeeper Logan Ketterer on an emergency loan as all three senior stoppers were injured. Diego Chara and Larrys Mabiala missed a handful of games with injuries. Yimmi Chara and Felipe Mora missed time due to national team duty. Andy Polo and Ish Jome are out for the season. Williamson previously missed time, ditto for Jeremy Ebobisse (before he was traded to San Jose).
Just as they hoped they were nearing full-strength — well, something resembling full-strength after their nightmarish injury record in 2021 — Williamson goes down for the season. A brutal end to a fantastic 18-month stretch in which Williamson went from little-used Timbers depth piece to an integral starter on a playoff team and starting the Gold Cup final with the USMNT.
It's a tough situation for all parties.
Williamson is the third Timbers player out for the season, alongside Polo and Jome. His injury is the most impactful of the trio, as his influence on the team is integral.
The dynamic midfielder had a strong partnership with Diego Chara at the base of midfield with the players complimenting one another well. Chara's ground-covering and defensive acumen allowed Williamson more freedom to get forward. Williamson's ability to break lines, particularly while carrying the ball, gave a different edge to the midfield. It's a difficult trait to replace.
“It’s so unfortunate, he worked so hard to grow as a player," Savarese said. "To put himself in good situations, like being called up to the national team and starting the Gold Cup final. He had so much desire to do well with us and he’s a very important player for us.”
In a pure numbers perspective, George Fochive's under-the-radar signing in the spring becomes all the more vital. Cristhian Paredes, who was expected to be the starter before Williamson broke out in 2020, should get a chance at a consistent run of games, too.
Another way to alleviate the creativity chasm in central midfield without Williamson is to continue playing one of Blanco or Yimmi Chara in a central role, as Savarese has been doing at times during the year either due to necessity or for tactical reasons. New U22 Initiative signing Santiago Moreno can play centrally as well, though is more of a second forward. The natural winger made his debut against Seattle on Sunday.
Still, though, there's no like-for-like replacement for Williamson.
“All the players have been talking to him," Savarese said. "Players on other teams, coaches on other teams have been reaching out to give their advice so he can come back even stronger too.”
For the national team, while Williamson wasn't included in the first World Cup qualifying roster, he was going to remain in the picture.
Williamson started the Gold Cup final and won praise for his performance as the USMNT beat Mexico. He is somewhere in the central midfield depth chart right around the roster bubble, with ample opportunity to have been selected in future windows. MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle was disappointed he wasn't selected to this roster.
"I’ll list Williamson’s omission as my single biggest gripe," Doyle wrote in his takeaways when the roster was announced. "I think he just adds a dynamism in terms of ball-carrying and ball progression in general that can be otherwise lacking in this US side."
The natural central midfielders selected for the first three games of qualifying are Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta and Cristian Roldan. James Sands can play there as well, though seems to be viewed more as a center back with the national team, while Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna could also play in a midfield three. Yunus Musah, who missed out due to injury, and Gianluca Busio are likely the next two up on the depth chart who aren't involved. Gregg Berhalter still has plenty of options in the midfield.
On a personal level, it's devastating.
Williamson is an integral part of the Timbers, was hoping to work his way into the national team on a more regular basis after being overlooked for Olympic qualifying in March and had just started the Gold Cup final. He has had European interest in the past, though no offers that were near his valuation.
The rest of the year was supposed to be a continuation of his breakout and evolution over two seasons. Instead, the focus transitions to the long rehab to get back on the field.
"As much as I want to sit here dwelling and feeling bad for myself, I know the comeback starts now," Williamson wrote in an Instagram post. "I’m in great hands, have a great support system, and know it’s always God’s plan for what’s in store. They will not let me fall. We will make sure I come back better and stronger than before."
World Cup qualifying ends in March 2022. ACL tears typically take between 9-12 months to recover from. It's highly unlikely he'd be physically available to return and, even if he recovers well ahead of schedule, players often take time to rediscover their best form. The injury almost definitely knocks him out for qualifying. Without having a part in qualifying, it is a tall task to push into the plans for the World Cup next winter, should the USMNT navigate qualifying successfully as expected.
Just a brutal, awful, no-good injury for one of MLS' top midfielders, playing an integral role for a team with hopes to make a playoff run, for a player hoping to carve a role with the national team.