Toward the end of the Maryland men's soccer team's 2017 season, coach Sasho Cirovski met with midfielder Eryk Williamson to encourage him to play professionally.
"I think we both agree that it's time for you to take the next step," Williamson recalled Cirovski saying. "College is challenging, but you deserve another challenge."
An Alexandria, Virginia, native, Williamson came up in D.C. United's academy and could've joined the professional club as a homegrown player.
Instead, over the course of about a week in January, the Portland Timbers traded for Williamson's rights, signed him and brought him to training camp, a change of plans both parties are pleased with.
"[Playing professionally] was something I've always wanted," Williamson said. "The fact it finally came true was probably one of the happiest moments of my life. I wasn't jumping up and down, but deep down inside, I was at a loss for words."
Williamson scored 14 goals and notched 13 assists in his three seasons with Maryland, and he increased his stock by impressing during stints with the U.S. under-20 men's national team. He considered turning pro after his sophomore season but elected to return to Cirovski's squad for one more season.
He was one of very few players on the U-20 team to play in college.
"I trusted Sasho and the process," Williamson said. "Looking back, I think that was probably the biggest thing in my development, the college season."
Williamson visited some MLS teams last summer and knew some of them attended Maryland games to track his progress, but the potential of signing somewhere other than D.C. United didn't occur to him until a mid-January conversation with his agent, Mike Gartlan.
But a pair of transactions from December and early January, when D.C. United signed a pair of midfielders, made it less likely Williamson would join the squad.
"It was something I didn't think was in the best interest for me," Williamson said. "Instead of being like a sixth-string midfielder, I could be around fourth in [Portland's] depth chart. … I think D.C. United had me in their plans in the next 2-3 years instead of it being in the next year or two."
Williamson had some preliminary talks with Portland during the MLS SuperDraft, and a few days later, the Timbers acquired his rights for $200,000 in allocation money, a 2018 international spot and a 2020 second-round draft pick. Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese spoke with Williamson on the phone a couple of hours later to welcome him.
"We see him as a talented player and a youngster," Savarese said, "and we have a very good feeling he could develop to be a really good player."
Williamson entered as a substitute in a preseason game Feb. 3, but it isn't clear whether he'll start the season with the Timbers or T2, the organization's United Soccer League squad. In their first conversation, Savarese told Williamson he could earn a spot with the first-team, but nothing will be guaranteed.
Even if Williamson does spend time with T2, he and Savarese feel he will be in a better position than if he was on D.C. United's United Soccer League affiliate, the Richmond Kickers. T2 trains and plays in Portland, while the Richmond Kickers squad is headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, about 100 miles away from D.C.
"I talked to guys who said that [the distance] is hard for them," Williamson said. "It takes a toll on them mentally. I knew. … I'd be a lot more comfortable here."
Ideally, Williamson will continue to develop into a contributor with the MLS squad, reaching the potential Savarese and the Timbers saw in him at Maryland and with the national team.
"He has the right tools to be a successful player," Savarese said. "We're going to work with him to help him achieve that goal. … We invested into his future."