Williamson is USMNT’s late bloomer, the former teenage prodigy making up for lost time

Patience is an attribute that can both help and hinder a player. Careers are short, so there is value in constantly pushing for more minutes and more responsibility. Standing still can waylay a career. But there are moments when it helps to bide one’s time, lay a foundation of work and shore up weaknesses in one’s game, which can then result in success down the road.

Throughout his career, Eryk Williamson has had to navigate this duality, although you would never know it watching him now. With the Portland Timbers, Williamson has become a mainstay in midfield, providing a valuable link between the defensive-minded skills of Diego Chara and the more dynamic play of Diego Valeri.

The 24-year-old has now parlayed that into his first forays with the U.S. men’s national team. Last Sunday Williamson made his international debut, helping the U.S. to close out a 1-0 victory over Haiti in the Gold Cup. He followed that up with his first start in a 6-1 win against Martinique, showing well in midfield and adding an assist on Miles Robinson‘s goal.

But Williamson has been anything but an overnight success. Along the way he’s learned that even when he’s pushing for more, there are no shortcuts, and that means there are moments when he needs to bide his time.

“I think we get caught up in the bigger picture a lot of the times, especially as athletes. ‘I want to be where Tyler Adams is. I want it to be tomorrow’. But there’s so many steps,” he told ESPN. “You’re talking to the Tylers, you talk to the guys and it wasn’t one day where, boom, you flip a switch. It’s chipping away at it every day, and I think that’s the mentality we have here [with the U.S.]. One day at a time and make sure I can put myself in the best position.”

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Williamson claims to have been pretty easygoing growing up. It was only when he got older that he seemed to be in a rush. But his mother, Nicole Brisco, who raised Eryk and his three siblings on her own, isn’t buying it.

“Eryk was very impatient. He always wanted something to happen right away,” she said to ESPN. “I noticed when he tried out for the first year for [the Olympic Development Program], and he didn’t make the national pool, he wanted to give up soccer. It just tore him apart. And I just said, ‘You’ve got to be patient.'”

She adds with a laugh, “I guess he eventually got there. But that was the roughest trip back home from Pennsylvania I’ve ever had to do in my life. I don’t know who cried more. I think I did.”

Williamson did indeed get there, although there were some blind alleys that he went down. A native of Alexandria, Virginia, he stood out in the talent-rich area of the DMV. His time at D.C. United’s academy, as a youth international and at the University of Maryland had him pegged for great things. This was a player who could do it all in midfield, be it carry the ball into attack, set up scoring opportunities, as well as defend, giving him a distinct profile among American midfielders.

Then his career hit a wall. A trade for his Homegrown rights from D.C. United to Portland in 2018 was expected to provide an opening to take the next step in his career. Instead, Williamson found himself stuck with Portland’s reserve team. A loan spell that same year with Santa Clara in Portugal was hoped to provide some additional playing time, but resulted in him playing nary a minute in six months. Upon his return to Portland, his prospects didn’t improve all that much. While he was handed a smattering of first-team minutes, he largely remained outside the reckoning.

In the view of Portland manager Giovanni Savarese, he saw a player in Williamson that wasn’t doing everything that he could.

“I think when you are so talented, things are so easy, and you can get by with the minimum,” Savarese told ESPN about Williamson. “You’re still very good, but I don’t want the minimum of you. I want the best of you.”

It was in that period that patience proved to indeed be a virtue for Williamson and forced a reexamination of his approach to his career. Rather than focus on the broader picture of what he didn’t have or why he wasn’t in the lineup, he put his energy into the little steps that it took to improve his game.

“For me, [Portugal] was an eye-opener,” he said. “I think once I got back from there, it was, ‘This is what I need to go out and do every day.’ I got into a routine of: Can I be the best player on the field? Can I set the goal that Gio was going to come up to me and say, ‘Yes, you’re the best player in training this week, this month.’ I took that into 2020.”

What emerged was a motivational mosaic. Williamson went down to Costa Rica for the 2020 preseason determined to leave Savarese with no choice but to put him in the lineup. He studied more film and took advice from the likes of longtime friend Jeremy Ebobisse and Chara. He began to feel more confidence from Savarese as well. The goals then expanded, from being the best in practice to getting into games, to influencing games, to excelling.

Then the pandemic hit, and the league was shut down.

“I started the year so well, and then I thought all that preseason, all the work, the video, all the little technical things I was working on was all going to waste,” he said.

Another emotional hit came when his grandmother, Aileen Ford, died that April. The two were close, with Ford among Williamson’s go-to supporters when times got difficult.

“They had such a great relationship,” Brisco said about her son and mother. “Eryk doesn’t talk about a lot of stuff like that. But I really think that that really pushed him last year, and he really, really came on.”

Savarese isn’t sure what changed, but when Williamson returned for the MLS Is Back Tournament (which the Timbers won) he looked like a different player.

“I think something right in the pandemic clicked,” Savarese said. “It’s like something he understood. ‘This is what I’m missing. This is what I need to do.’ Then when he came back from the pandemic I was like, ‘Wow, he got it.'”

Williamson was soon borderline irreplaceable, but that was by no means the end of his arduous journey. Called into the January camp, an ankle injury slowed his progress. U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter cited that as a big reason why U.S. U23 manager Jason Kreis left Williamson off the roster for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. It was a move that raised eyebrows from the moment it was announced, and given the way that team struggled in attack, there has been no change in the sentiment that Williamson would have helped a side that ultimately failed to qualify for Tokyo.

But Savarese’s observation that Williamson made things look so easy is revealing, almost as if there was trust that needed to be built up over time that he was giving his all, as well as an understanding of which buttons to press and when.

“I think you have to get to know [Williamson] because he’s a very smart kid, very clever,” Savarese said. “You need to make sure that you have a good conversation, for him to understand what is asked for him to do. You need to create a relationship, you need to understand what he’s capable of, you need to understand the moments to push him a little bit more.”

By then, Williamson had learned to be able to handle the snub, and how to move on from it. The style that Kreis’ team played is similar to Berhalter’s and added to his experience in January. That made coming into this camp more seamless.

“Just figure out what is being asked of me and what I need to do to be into a team knowing that there’s so many different ways to play in this midfield,” Williamson said. “And there’s so many competitive players that I’m competing against. So it’s just a lot of what’s being asked and also taking what I’m doing in Portland and my skill sets and transferring it into performances with a national team.”

Now Williamson has found some equilibrium in his career. He’s still ambitious, but knows to keep his focus on the present. Is there some regret that this realization didn’t come earlier? Williamson muses that if it had maybe he would have broken through when he was younger, but also notes, “Maybe I needed to shape myself as a pro.”

The reality is for some players that light of doing the little things never turns on. For Williamson, it’s now illuminating the way to a brighter future.