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The Eryk Williamson Experiment

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Savarese’s choice to play Williamson as a number 10 did not pay off in the first match against San Jose, but the learning experience may pay dividends on Saturday.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers traveled to Earthquake Stadium to take on the San Jose Earthquakes on Sept. 16, a make-up match that resulted in a 1-1 draw. Just three days later the two teams will play each other again in San Jose.

Both Giovanni Saverese and Matias Almeyda heavily rotated their squads. But there were two players featured that are sure to start again on Saturday: Portland’s Eryk Williamson and the San Jose’s Judson.

Williamson was one of the breakout stars in the MLS is Back Tournament. He thrived playing as a box-to-box midfielder next to the ever-present Diego Chara. The Timbers were solid defensively throughout the tournament only allowing more than one goal in a match once, against LAFC.

Portland was also very efficient offensively, outperforming their expected goals consistently. The Timbers would sit in a low-block, win the ball back and counter. The double-pivot of Williamson and Chara was crucial to this strategy. They are both good with the ball at their feet, capable of getting out of tight situations and looking to play the ball to one of two outlets: Diego Valeri or Sebastian Blanco.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Timbers have struggled both offensively and defensively lately. This is in part due to Blanco’s season ending injury against the Seattle Sounders and other factors like the inability to train outdoors because of the air quality in Portland. But matches keep coming thick and fast, and Savarese, despite needing to win matches, also needs to rest players.

On Wednesday, Savarese elected to rest Valeri. Williamson was moved out of his normal box-to-box midfield position and moved to Valeri’s more freeing number 10 spot. That meant when the Timbers won the ball they were looking to Williamson as their outlet to get out of pressure.

Early in the match Savarese’s experiment of placing Williamson as the number 10 looked effective. Portland sat deep, won the ball and immediately looked to Williamson, who was receiving the ball with options. He could play the ball to attackers making dangerous runs, dribble into space or play a safe pass back to keep possession.

San Jose figured this out and appeared to have a game plan for dealing with this tactical wrinkle, even when dealing with Williamson rather than Valeri. Judson was responsible for man-marking the attacking midfielder. He was able to apply the strategy he would’ve used against Valeri and implement it against an out-of-position Williamson.

The Quakes’ high press repeatedly forced Timbers turnovers in their final third and Judson began limiting service to Williamson. When this happened, the Timbers had to find a new way to get the ball forward. They searched for Jaroslaw Niezgoda and one of the wingers — Felipe Mora or Yimmi Chara — but this hindered the Timber’s defensive organization.

Portland was pressing in a 4-4-2 in the first half. Niezgoda and Williamson or Yimmi Chara would be the front two, depending on which side of the field San Jose had the ball. Then there would be a midfield line of four, consisting of whichever of Williamson or Yimmi Chara were not pressing (Mora, Diego Chara and Andy Polo).

As Judson began marking Williamson out of the match, one or two of the wide players would try to serve as the outlet. But the Quakes pressure suffocated the Timbers and with less players in the midfield and wide players looking to become outlets, Portland became very narrow and easy to defend. The only consistent way for the Timbers to get the ball forward was Williamson losing Judson from time to time and getting fouled and playing quick restarts.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Williamson spent much of the first half sitting above the midfield with his back to goal, walking around trying to find space to exploit in that creative play-making role. But the Timbers would have been much better suited with either Mora or Marvin Loria in that role. They are natural attackers and understand that space better than Williamson. The attackers are also more accustomed to seeing less of the ball than Williamson.

Williamson has been one of the keys to the Timbers offense this year, but he is best when he is constantly on the ball. He has a better understanding of the game from that deeper midfield role. Williamson’s vision, passing and ball carrying ability allow him to dictate a match and move the Timbers offense forward. His deeper midfield position also allows him to make those runs from midfield that resulted in goals against the Sounders and LAFC.

Los Angeles Galaxy v Portland Timbers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The American midfielder is a highly technical player and has great quality. He could learn how to play a creative midfielder role. He is much more influential and comfortable sitting in the midfield next to Diego Chara. But we have seen how San Jose plans to deal with creative midfielders. Judson will constantly look to jump passing lanes, put him under pressure when receiving the ball and foul him consistently.

I imagine Diego Valeri will slide back into the creative midfield role on Saturday night. He has the quality to beat Judson and exploit the man-marking system. Maybe more importantly, Williamson got a firsthand look at how Judson will attempt to mark Valeri out of the game. The T2 product should use his experience against Judson to play passes and make runs that allow himself space and time. He should also play passes based on Judson’s positioning that help Valeri get by his man and into space in transition.

Savarese’s experiment of Williamson in the creative midfield role may not have paid off on Wednesday, but it may allow him to really dictate the game from the midfield and exploit Almeyda’s man-marking system come Saturday.