BRAD SMITH/ISI PHOTOS

Lynn Williams is a forward for both the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL and the USWNT. With the Courage, Williams has won back-to-back NWSL Championships while becoming one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league. Below, Williams spoke with JWS about the ongoing Challenge Cup, the secret to the Courage’s success, and the NWSL’s role in supporting Black Lives Matter. 

You are a couple of games into the Challenge Cup. How are you feeling? How are you doing in Utah? 

Good. The hardest game stint has passed. We had so many games in such a small amount of time — our mode was just to survive and hope we end up on top. Now, we’re getting into the games that matter the most because it’s the knockout round. We have more time in between games, so we’re able to train a little bit more and work on things that we need to work on, versus just getting out there and performing. The NWSL has made a really safe bubble for us, which is really cool. At first, I think everyone was nervous, but everything is going really smoothly. I think the games have been exciting. And I’m just really excited to be playing soccer again safely.

How has it been getting tested for COVID so often? 

It’s good. Personally, I don’t really mind it. The swab is a little bit uncomfortable, but it just takes a second. And, if it’s going to keep everybody safe, then that’s a price we are willing to pay.

What precautions has the NWSL taken in terms of COVID-19 at the Challenge Cup? 

Basically, we go from the hotel to the stadium and the training grounds, and then back to the hotel. Honestly, I’m not that bored yet, but it is crazy to think that I’ve only seen three things this whole time. I actually feel much safer here than I do at home. We get tested all the time, we have to wear masks, we have to follow strict protocols.

If you think about what we were doing before the tournament, though, it was way worse. It was such an unknown. Every day you would try to go train and motivate yourself, thinking that there would be a season just for it to get pushed back. And then you would hear the season’s going to start up, so you would push yourself again just for it to get moved back again. It was such a rollercoaster of emotions. Now, that we’re actually doing something, I get excited to go to the field every day. I’m playing towards something. It might be unorthodox, but at least it’s something.

The Courage have been dominant for years, and are again showing up this tournament. How do you explain this sustained run of success? 

We get that question a lot. Honestly, I think that it goes back to 2015 and 2016 when we were in Western New York. There was a core group of us in 2015 in New York who weren’t having fun and who almost quit playing soccer. Then, in 2016, we had that same core group, but we started adding pieces. We added Paul and he brought the love of the game back into it.

We never talked about the championship or winning games. We were always talking about a growth mindset. And that has trickled along and become what we are today. We are never satisfied. I think we are one of the hardest working teams. We’ve taken that hardworking core and now we’re adding layers to it with Debinha and Sully [Denise O’Sullivan] and Sam [Mewis] and Crystal [Dunn]. With our core group, we’ve been together for five years now, so we understand each other on the field — we know each other’s tendencies.

On some teams, it seems like the national team players really run the club. On the Courage, there seems to be a clear philosophy: everyone gets in line, national team or not. Do you feel like that’s true? 

I can’t speak to other teams because I’m not on them. But I do think that here it is very clear and apparent that it’s not just our national team players who are driving us. Somebody is fighting for their spot every single day. You look at our bench and we’re stacked. We have all of these players and you could think, ‘Oh, it’s just the national team players, they’ll get it done.’ But, every day, I’m fighting for my spot and I think that’s something that drives us. At the same time, though, this team is so loving that you want your teammate to do well. So, it’s a culture that is loving, but at the same time so intense.

Do you think it’s hard to have that level of unity and intensity at such a high level? 

If Jess McDonald and Kristen Hamilton and McKenzie Meehan are all pushing me and being their best, it’s only going to make me better. And vice versa — if I’m being my best, it’s only going to make them better. We can’t have somebody who takes a day off because that’s a disservice to the team. That’s our driving force — we have a standard and we don’t let anybody fall below it.

Let’s go back in time for a second. You played college soccer at Pepperdine. What was that like? 

I knew I wanted to play soccer in college, but I wasn’t getting recruited. Pepperdine happened to be the only school who offered me a scholarship, so I went down to visit and I loved it. I ended up doing really well my freshman year. Up until that moment, I thought I could be good at soccer, but nobody was recruiting me. I thought I was seeing something that other people weren’t, or that I was delusional. So, when Pepperdine gave me a chance and I was Rookie of the Year, I realized, ‘You know what? I’m right. I need to believe in myself more. I can do this.’

If anybody can take anything away from my story, it’s that you have to believe in yourself. There are so many people who are going to say, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.’ But, if you believe in yourself and you have the determination and the skillset to do it, then you can do it.

You mentioned that after you were drafted to the NWSL in 2015, you were unhappy in Western New York. Why was that? 

Honestly, it was a shock to get drafted coming from a smaller school. But, like I said, I believed in myself. When I got to the professional level, the first year was awful. We were a losing team and a lot of us had just been drafted from winning teams. We were in Buffalo, New York, which was cold as hell and away from family. So many of us wanted to quit. I think we all convinced ourselves to come back the next year. And, like I said, Paul just saw something in us — something in me.

A couple of years ago, he said, “When I first saw you, you were an athlete trying to play soccer. And now you’re a soccer player who is also an athlete.” I think that’s the biggest compliment that he’s ever given me. I think I’ve been able to get where I am because, one, I started believing in myself and, two, I had somebody else who also believed in me. I owe a lot of my success to him.

What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and how the NWSL has taken a stand to show support during the Challenge Cup? 

I’m really proud that we were the first league back and that we are able to use our voices and our platform for change. We’ve been wearing the warm-up t-shirts and, while I can’t speak for everybody on why they kneel or stand during the national anthem, I know our team put out a statement saying that we are unified against police brutality and the social injustices that minorities in this country face. But it’s more than just a symbol, too. Our team has an auction going on for the National Black Justice Coalition and we are planning to start a foundation for underprivileged children and communities. I’m really happy with what our team is doing. It started with unity and a symbol, and now it’s action.

During the Challenge Cup, some players have knelt and other players have stood for the national anthem. It’s caused a lot of debate among fans. What’s your take on whether someone can still be an ally while standing for the flag? 

What I will say is that I don’t think you can be for the movement sometimes and not for it other times. I think you’re either all in or you’re all out. I do think it’s great when people say, ‘I want to help. I want to take action.’ Because, otherwise, kneeling for the flag is just performative — it’s just a publicity stunt.

I hear all the time that people stand for the flag because they have a military family or support the military. But, if you think about it, the flag doesn’t represent the military and its purpose is not to honor the military. The flag is to unite a nation under God — a nation with freedom and liberty and justice for all. If you can say that you think that everybody in this country has freedom, justice and liberty, then fine, stand. But I personally don’t believe that. I do love this country and this country has given me so much. I have been privileged in so many ways, but I can recognize that there are so many people who have not been privileged, and who don’t have the same liberties and the same freedoms as the majority.