Almost everything about the Portland Timbers’ 2-0 win over the Sounders on Aug. 29 was perfect. Fish-gutting goals from Sebastian Blanco and Felipe Mora that silenced Lumen Field, the Sounders being thwarted by a combination of woodwork and Steve Clark in the second half, and a clean sheet against the same team that put six goals past Aljaz Ivacic at Providence Park two weeks prior.
But after planting awkwardly while turning to pass the ball in the 12th minute of the game, Eryk Williamson sustained what the Timbers would later announce to be a torn ACL in his left knee, which will see him miss the remainder of the 2021 MLS season. A brutal injury for one of the only bright spots in a Timbers side that has struggled for large parts throughout the year. Another season-ending injury for a team that has already lost Jeff Attinella and Andy Polo thus far.
To describe the injury as a brutal loss for the Timbers would be an understatement. Williamson was really starting to come into his own as Diego Chara’s midfield partner in his second full season as a starter, logging a goal and two assists through 14 matches this season after notching three goals and five assists in 2020.
Williamson’s play since the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament also saw him earn a spot on the USMNT’s roster for the 2021 Gold Cup. He came off the bench and helped set up Gyasi Zardes’ game-winning goal against Qatar in the semi-final, before starting and playing 87 minutes in the USMNT’s 1-0 win against Mexico in the final.
The two biggest questions now facing the Timbers midfield are as follows: 1) What are the Timbers losing on the pitch in Williamson’s absence? 2) How does the team go about replacing Williamson’s output for the remainder of the season and (hopefully) the playoffs.
So, what exactly will the Timbers be missing during Williamson’s knee rehabilitation?
Of the Timbers players who have played five or more games this season, Williamson ranks in the top five of the following statistics:
- Pass percentage (85.6%). Only Marvin Loria, Renzo Zambrano, and dos Charas (Yimmi and Diego) rank higher than Williamson in passing efficiency on the team in 2021.
- Fouls suffered (19). Williamson’s ability to retain possession and draw fouls on the counter-attack is a huge release valve that the team will have to try to replicate.
- Tackles won (13). Dos Charas are the only two midfielders on the team who have won more tackles than Williamson this season. The other two players are Jose Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo.
Beyond his statistical output, Williamson’s ability to receive the ball and drive forward into the final third on a consistent basis is an attribute no Timbers midfielder has possessed since Darlington Nagbe was traded to Atlanta United in 2017. Losing this gives the defense one less reliable option to pass to out of the back and hinders the speed at which the midfield can link up with the forwards in transition.
So, how could the team go about plugging up the Williamson-shaped hole in the heart of the midfield for the remainder of the season?
To put it bluntly, I’m not sure the Timbers can replicate the same level of output Williamson brings to the table. At least not in the same way. All of his potential replacements have parts of their game that are similar to Williamson’s, but none have the complete package. The question that faces Giovanni Savarese and the rest of the coaching staff is which option will give the midfield the most stability going forward?
There are five candidates to replace Williamson as Chara’s midfield partner: Blake Bodily, George Fochive, Cristhian Paredes, Bill Tuiloma, and Renzo Zambrano. However, Bodily is still young and unlikely to be thrust into the heart of a team battling for a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. Likewise, Tuiloma is more of an auxiliary midfield option and will realistically only be put into midfield to close out the final minutes of matches.
Who’s ready for some math folks?
Fochive offers the most similar defensive output compared to Williamson. Fochive was brought back to the club during the summer transfer window to help shoulder some of the burden in midfield after Polo’s season-ending injury and Williamson’s Gold Cup call-up. Through 11 games, Fochive has posted a 56.3% tackle success rate, a 56.9% duel success rate, and a 54.5% aerial duel success rate. Williamson’s numbers are 59.1%, 53.8%, and 58.3%, respectively. Fochive also has the same number of blocks as Williamson (3) and seven fewer interceptions (13) in three fewer games.
For a more offensive/transitional Williamson replacement, Cristhian Paredes is probably the most likely candidate to start next to Chara. Paredes plays 37.6% of his passes forward upfield, compared to Williamson’s 32.5%. However, Paredes’ consistency continues to be an issue for him and the team. This is highlighted by his successful passing rate of 76.2%, which is the lowest out of all of the midfielders on the team, and extremely poor long passing success rate of 20%. Paredes has also played the fewest games of any Timbers central midfielder this season at ten games and is tied with Zambrano for the fewest starts in central midfield with five.
Speaking of Zambrano, he offers the most similar output to Williamson in terms of passing and ball retention. In 12 games this season, Zambrano has a successful pass rate of 86.8%, a successful long pass rate of 69.4%, and averages about 44.2 successful passes per 90 minutes. Williamson’s numbers are 85.6%, 73.7%, and 38.1 passes per 90 minutes, respectively. Zambrano is the low-risk, low-reward option here. While his successful pass rate is the best of Williamson’s replacement options, 65.6% of his passes are sideways and a further 15.6% are backward.
For what it’s worth, Fochive was the starting midfielder in the Timbers’ first full game without Williamson, a 2-0 win against Houston, and would be my candidate to start alongside Chara in defensive midfield for the remainder of the season. His defensive capabilities are very much needed right now in front of a Timbers backline that has… well… we all know how the backline has been this season.