Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 26 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
Since this column resumed last month alongside the 2020 Major League Soccer season, we’ve featured, coincidentally, three of the four teams that comprise the semifinal field for the MLS is Back Tournament. The Philadelphia Union. Minnesota United. Orlando City. Now it’s time to give the Portland Timbers some long overdue love ahead of their semi against now-favorite Philly on Wednesday night [8 p.m. ET, FS1/TUDN].
The Timbers have been quietly excellent during their entire stay in Central Florida. They went undefeated in a group that included Supporters’ Shield holder LAFC, and after getting a little bit lucky in winning on penalties over surprising FC Cincinnati in the round of 16, they beat the wheels off a New York City FC team that Union coach Jim Curtin likes to call best team in the Eastern Conference.
Yet now it’s Portland, not the Pigeons, that stands between Philadelphia and next week’s grand finale. And a big reason for the Timbers’ success over the last few weeks has been the play of two 23-year-old United States national team prospects: striker Jeremy Ebobisse and central midfielder Eryk Williamson.
1. Before we get to Ebobisse and Williamson, let’s be clear. The Timbers are stacked. Sebastian Blanco has been sensational; for me, he’s the tournament MVP so far. The now-34-year-old Diego Valeri, the face of the franchise since he arrived from Lanus is his native Argentina in 2013, came off the bench and scored the winner against NYCFC. Another South American, Peruvian World Cup veteran Andy Polo, sealed the victory with a golazo.
Then there’s midfield destroyer Diego Chara, who just played his 300th match with the Timbers and who Curtin called “one of the most under-appreciated great players that our league’s ever had” on Monday. Portland also features Chara’s younger brother, winger Yimmi Chara. The list goes on. Still, the improvement of the two young Americans has been obvious.
2. “These young players that you mentioned, Jeremy and Eryk, it’s been part of the process that we have had with some of the young players in making sure that they develop, that they grow, that they understand that nothing is easy and they have to earn it and work for it,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said when I asked about Ebobisse and Williamson during Monday’s pre-match media Zoom call. “We’re seeing the fruits of that right now, in Erik especially.”
3. Savarese wasn’t taking anything away from Ebobisse, who scored three goals in just over 200 minutes during the group stage. The France-born, Maryland-raised striker enjoyed what many considered a breakout 2019, a year that began with his first USMNT cap and ended with him playing in all 34 MLS regular season matches for the Timbers and scoring 11 goals despite being deployed mostly on the wings.
4. Over the last month, though, Williamson’s game has taken an even bigger leap forward. The former University of Maryland playmaker’s future in MLS seemed up in the air when his rights were traded from D.C. United to Portland in early 2018.
“We believe Eryk is capable of further growth and development, and has the potential to become a quality player at the next level,” Savarese said at the time. But Williamson hadn’t played a minute for the Timbers first team before being loaned to Portuguese side CD Santa Clara that August. Playing time was nonexistent overseas, too.
5. “It didn’t go as expected but I learned a lot,” Williamson told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone on the team, didn’t know anything about the country. I learned that it’s not about how comfortable you are. You have to work hard even if you’re not the happiest off the field.”
6. Williamson was back in Portland last season but started just three games. He made a brief cameo off the bench in one of the Timbers’ two March matches before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the 2020 campaign for more than three months. All of this makes what he’s done in Orlando more impressive. The smooth, technical Williamson has already played more minutes over the last four weeks than in his first two seasons as a professional.
7. “He has taken this opportunity to show why he is as indispensable as anyone else on the field,” Ebobisse said of Williamson. The two have known each other since they were 13. They grew up playing with and against each other in greater Washington, D.C. and were teammates on the Americans’ 2017 U-20 World Cup team that won its group before being knocked out in the quarterfinals. “As a friend I’m really happy for him.”
9. And how about this for a comparison? “His ability to dribble through lines, it almost reminds us a little bit of Darlington Nagbe in what he can do for the team,” Ebobisse said. High praise indeed. Nagbe, of course, helped the Timbers win MLS Cup in 2015 before earning a second championship with Atlanta United two years ago.
10. Williamson is quick to credit Ebobisse for his help. Having a sounding board who had already gone through the inevitable ups and downs all young players face was invaluable. Over the course of our 10-minute conversation, Williamson mentioned more than once how he “looks up to” Ebobisse, who is just four months his senior. “To get to pick his brain, and his opinions on how I’m doing have been massive for my development,” Williamson said.
11. Another overlooked part of his path are the 30-plus games Williamson logged with T2 in the second-tier USL. Ebobisse also spent time in the USL, as have USMNT starters such as Tyler Adams and Aaron Long. “Playing in college or with the under-20 national team, it’s not the same as playing in a professional game,” Williamson said. “It allowed me to get the repetitions and experience I needed.”
12. Said Savarese: “In Eryk, now we see the product of three years of work, especially on the side of commitment, understanding and being more focused in the things he has to do.
“Talent, he always has had,” the coach continued. “Now he’s applying that talent with great work, and that’s why he’s been very important in this tournament.”
13. Savarese took the Timbers to the final in 2018, his first year at the helm. He made the playoffs last year despite starting the season with the longest road trip in MLS history as Providence Park was expanded. Over the years, coaches and GM-types have often told me that it takes three years to build a championship team in MLS.“It might take three years, it might take two years,” he said. “It takes time to make sure that you put in your work, you put in the culture that you want.”
14. Ebobisse says the former Venezuelan international began to build that culture from the start. “Since the day he got here, Gio established a good understanding and rapport with players,” he said. “Just on a human level, I think everybody agrees that he’s a great person and that makes you wanna fight not only for your teammates but also for the coaching staff and the club.”
15. Ebobisse an impressive guy. In addition to emerging as one of the top American goal-scorers in MLS, he’s not afraid to speak out about social issues. He’s on the board of the Black Players for Change coalition that was formed in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minnesota police custody to combat systemic racism.
16. The group’s efforts have been front and center during the MLS is Back Tournament. Just about every player and coach has been wearing the Black Lives Matter t-shirts designed by Union midfielder Warren Creavalle, one of more than 70 members of BPFC. (The excellent Tom Marshall has the story behind those shirts, which are now on sale to the public.) I asked Ebobisse how the coalition can sustain momentum after the event ends.
“I love history, so I understand that these moments are followed by periods of backlash against whatever the movement accomplished,” he said. “Ultimately where we hope to make an impact is off the field., Whether that’s front offices, the league office, or in our local markets and our academies. Those are all going to be out of the public spotlight.
“I’m starting to see what we’re going through in this country almost as a third reconstruction after the Civil War and then the civil rights movement. We’re thinking — I’m thinking — we have a window of years. We have to go for it. And that starts with being organized and making sure that everything you do is fully thought-out, so that people take you seriously. If you create the mechanisms for change during that time period, that can outlast any backlash that comes.”
17. I mean, damn. You don’t normally hear athletes speak so eloquently about such serious subject matter, let alone one under 25. For a while, the Duke University-educated Ebobisse’s friends and family actually worried about his willingness to be candid.
“Before I was drafted people were saying that maybe I shouldn’t speak out, that I might be jeopardizing my career,” he said. “I told them I can’t stop myself. And now I’m among a group of fellow professional athletes who feel passionately about similar issues. We have been able to combine our voices. Hopefully that will make us louder and we can influence the public into at least understanding the experience that we’re trying to share and not being against that movement. That, to me, is so important.”
18. Before we go any further, it must be said that MLS players are some of the most thoughtful, engaging, down-to-earth pro athletes you’ll find anywhere. It was a pleasure to chat with the likes of Ebobisse, Williamson, Tesho Akindele, Michael Boxall, Tim Melia, Chris Wondolowski and Graham Zusi over the last month. Some I’ve known for years. Others, including our two central figures this week, I’d never spoken to before. But all of them were downright lovely. For me, it’s the best thing about covering MLS.
19. One thing that the four remaining teams possess? They really enjoy being around each other. That might seem obvious. It doesn’t mean that the other 22 teams don’t get along. However, tournaments staged in a neutral location are particularly grueling. The better teams do, the longer they’re away from their own beds, from their loved ones. It’s a mental grind. With conflicting emotions at play, the team with the best chemistry is often the last one standing.
20. I’ve been lucky enough to cover multiple World Cups. It’s an amazing privilege for any journalist. Here’s a dirty little secret, though: At both Brazil 2014 and last summer’s Women’s World Cup in France, some American scribes were silently hoping the U.S. would get knocked out as soon as possible — so they could go home, too. Some players are the same.
21. Thursday’s matchup between Orlando and Minnesota features the delicious storyline of Loons coach Adrian Heath facing the club he took from the third tier to MLS back in 2015 before being fired after that inaugural season. “I have such respect for him,” current Lions coach Oscar Pareja said of Heath. The Loons know how much beating Orlando would mean to their coach. But Pareja doesn’t expect that to matter. “I don’t think you need any extra motivation to compete in a semifinal in Major League Soccer,” he said.
On the other hand, it can’t hurt. “Everyone’s aware of his history with the club,” Loons fullback Chase Gasper said of Heath’s Orlando link. “We’re going to to everything in our power to make sure our coach gets the win in this game.
22. Heath still owns a home in the area. “I’m really looking forward to the game, because you know what my connection with Orlando City is, and the city itself,” Heath said. “So it will always be more than just another game for me, because of the respect that I have for the supporters. We built the club together.”
23. Heath has plenty of respect for Pareja, too. “We forget how long he’s been in the job,” he said of Pareja, who was hired during the offseason. “You can see the belief within the group ... we know this will be our toughest game so far.”
24. Going 1-for-4 in my quarterfinal predictions (thanks Philly!) isn’t going to stop me from handicapping the semis. I still say Philly gets though, although the more experienced Timbers are the bookies’ pick by a slight margin. This one is going to penalties, with the Union advancing on the strength of a superior keeper in Andre Blake.
25. Minnesota is the bettors’ fave in Thursday’s contest. I’m not going against the house twice. Loons win 2-1.
26. Finally, per multiple reports, following the tournament, the league plans to begin playing regular season games in home markets later this month. MLS deserves enormous credit for the way it’s pulled off the event in Orlando following lots of skepticism and a shaky start. Along with the NWSL, they showed that playing in a tightly regulated bubble works.
Because of that experience in Orlando, MLS players could be more likely to follow the protocols designed to keep them safe than those in Major League Baseball. However, given the difficulty MLB teams (and for that matter, USL squads) have had staying COVID-19-free in the absence of a bubble, it sure feels like the league is asking for trouble.
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