MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

What Portland Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson is chasing after Olympic letdown

Eryk Williamson dribble

Sitting on the couch for the better part of two hours, Eryk Williamson could not and did not pick up his phone. It sat idly near him. That in and of itself is an achievement for most 23-year-olds.

But this wasn't a digital detox. He was too nervous and too focused on his television.

Williamson watched on as the United States under-23 side played Honduras for a place at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, pushed back to this summer by the COVID-19 pandemic. He had controversially been one of the final players cut before the roster was finalized.

Things didn't go well for the US. A one-goal deficit just before halftime quickly became two, minutes into the second half. They pulled one back but couldn't complete the comeback, falling 2-1 to Honduras, missing a third straight Olympic Games.

“It’s tough to watch when you feel like you can help," Williamson told, "but ultimately, that’s out of my control.”

Many thought he should have been there and were making those feelings known quite directly on social media.

Williamson had been involved in youth national teams over the years with plenty of members on the team. He felt no spite, no sense of pettiness about not being picked. He still had plans to force his way into Jason Kreis' plans for the Olympics if they qualified.

"I had more than enough faith in the team to get the job done," Williamson said. "I know, okay, I didn’t make this group but it wasn’t set in stone this group was going to the Olympics. It was about doing what I had to do if we qualified for the Olympics – I could prove I’m ready to go. But it’s disappointing, I felt for the guys. Talking to them, I felt the heartbreak for them.”

He's used that letdown as motivation for a hot start to 2021.

Williamson was among the league's most pleasant surprises in 2020. He finally got his chance at regular playing time with the Portland Timbers, forcefully grabbing the opportunity with both hands and refusing to let go. This year he appears to have leveled up. His finest performance came last weekend as the injury-ravaged Timbers traveled to face the San Jose Earthquakes. In a midfield battle against US U-23 captain Jackson Yueill, Williamson was the best player on the field, assisting both goals in Portland's the 2-0 win despite playing as a single-pivot defensive midfielder.

“I wouldn’t say a ton has changed, except for a different mentality," Williamson said. "Last year it was about finishing 90 minutes in the best way, now it’s how can I change the game? It’s a different role, different responsibility I’m putting on myself. I think I need that to mature in this league.”

Maturation is something he and head coach Giovanni Savarese have talked about. His coach was impressed with his performance in a new role with Diego Chara out.

"Eryk showed a lot of maturity," Savarese said Saturday after the game. "Because when you change the role of a player and you give them a different assignment, and you have to play a little more defensive and he delivered the way that he did today, you see that it’s a lot that he has matured during this last year, year and a half. Today it was a great performance by Eryk.”

Williamson's rapid development and growth is occurring after getting a chance that he, admittedly, wished happened sooner.

Williamson was a product of D.C. United's academy and a standout for the University of Maryland but didn't sign with the Black-and-Red. Portland ended up acquiring his homegrown rights from D.C. in 2018, which came at no small cost. He didn't debut for Portland until 2019, playing just 234 minutes before his breakout 2020 season, all after beginning his pro career with Timbers 2 in USL and spending time on loan to Portuguese club Santa Clara.

“Straight out of college, the T2 route the first few months and playing in USL was good. I needed some USL, definitely," Williamson said. "Conversations with coaching staffs here and my agent, it was a little of we were getting impatient because we were getting ready for the step. It took a little longer than we hoped for, but hindsight is 20/20. The time I had in USL, the roles I took in those games have reflected the situation I am now, taking on a bigger role. You can look at it both ways. Ideally, we would’ve wanted it earlier so now we’re not looking at 23 [and] getting consistent minutes, could we have done this at 21 or 22?”

At any rate, Williamson is here now and clubs around the world are taking notice.

Hungarian champions and Champions League side Ferencvaros TC had a bid rejected in the region of $1.5 million, multiple sources tell Ferencvaros are not the only club interested in his services, though D.C. United holding a 50% sell-on clause complicates the math on any potential deal.

Williamson hasn't spoken with USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter or anyone on his coaching staff after being cut from the Olympic squad, but hopes to hear from them this summer. A hugely busy international schedule looms that begins with Nations League games in a few weeks before the Gold Cup in July. With continued success in Portland, he hopes to pull on the US jersey in a couple of months.

“It’s been a really good start (to the season), a lot of it has come from self-motivation for where I want to be this summer. ... I’m focused on the season, the Gold Cup is a little way away," Williamson said. "That’s what I’m aiming for, hopefully there’s a conversation around that.”