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For years, the North Carolina Courage have embraced their self-appointed role as perennial underdogs — even as their star-studded roster has racked up NWSL trophies and titles, winning back-to-back championships in 2018 and ‘19. 

Head coach Paul Riley has hammered the narrative home to such a degree that it’s become a running joke amongst rival coaches.

In the past, it’s been hard to know whether he was trolling the media or just fueling his squad. And yet in 2021, the moniker might finally fit. 

After a trophy-less 2020, the Courage enter the latest NWSL season having lost a trio of world-class stars: Crystal Dunn was traded to Portland in the offseason, while both Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper signed with Manchester City. 

To say the losses could impact the club is an understatement: Mewis was just named the best player in the world by ESPN. Dunn came in at No. 6, while Dahlkmper was No. 29.

Their collective departure already has fans wondering if the Courage dynasty is over, even before the upcoming season begins. 

Lynn Williams might have something to say about that. 

Courage fans don’t need to be told how important Williams is to the franchise. She was drafted by the club’s predecessor (the Western New York Flash) in 2015 and subsequently moved with the team to Cary. She has since led the Courage in scoring for the last three non-Covid seasons, and is now the second all-time leading scorer in NWSL history. 

Despite these accomplishments, it’s been easy to overlook Williams’ talent given just how loaded the Courage have been. That’s about to change in 2021. And while everyone may want to talk about what the Courage have lost, the real story might be the leader they’ve found.

Embracing the challenge

Williams, for starters, isn’t apologizing about that “underdog” narrative. 

“In the past, people really got annoyed with us, saying ‘you guys are clearly not the underdogs,’ but I always think that it’s not necessarily about your performance or your results. It’s an attitude… an underdog attitude is somebody who’s always going to fight no matter how much success they’re having.”

It’s precisely that attitude that has guided Williams in her own career. Looking at the player she is today, it’s mind boggling to think she received just one college offer (she scored 50 goals as a high school senior, so it’s not like she was hiding). 

Thankfully for soccer fans, Pepperdine University saw something special in Williams. Three NWSL Championships, three NWSL Shields, a Golden Boot, and an NWSL MVP award later, it’s clear they were right. 

Williams knows what it’s like to be doubted as a player. Now she’s the face of a franchise in transition. 

“For the longest time, everybody has always wanted us to lose. And now they see this opportunity as ‘finally the Courage are going to lose.’ I think that for me, that’s a challenge that I’m willing to accept.”

She already has a warning for teams thinking too far ahead: “We are still going to be just as hard to play and just as hard to beat.”

Brad Smith/ISI Photos

As someone who’s been with the Courage from the start, Williams knows she’s officially grown out of her ‘up-and-coming’ phase, admitting “sometimes I don’t see myself as this veteran player, but I definitely am, and I can’t deny that any longer.” 

Hopping on the phone with me after a training session in the North Carolina heat, the Fresno, California native speaks with a fluid calmness underscored by the confidence of a woman who knows who she is and what she’s capable of, despite having to defy an underdog label time and time again. 

When the ninth NWSL season begins, Williams won’t just step onto the pitch as a leader for her team, but also as a player who has found her voice and discovered her platform within the larger soccer world. At the same time that she’s competing to represent her country in Tokyo, Williams is also challenging it to transform 2020’s racial reckoning into tangible change. And while her actions on the field may determine the course of both the Courage’s season as well as the USWNT’s shot at gold, it’s her actions off the field that could change the game for Black women in soccer.

COMMITTING TO THE COURAGE

Amidst the flurry of big-name exits last year, Williams became a more permanent pillar for her team, signing an extension with the Courage in August that will keep her with the team through 2023.  

Now acting as an independent entity from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the NWSL no longer has to adhere to all of the previous regulations regarding how national team players’ NWSL salaries are financed. This means national team players have the option to sign directly with their NWSL teams, an option Williams has exercised (as have Dunn and Lindsey Horan in Portland). 

The new contract gives her more stability and income security — something that still eludes so many in the league. 

“I wish women’s soccer was at a different spot and I wish that maybe I was a little bit younger. I’m not saying I’m old, but as I get older, I can’t just continue to make nothing. One day I want a family, and one day I want to set myself up for success in the future. And so knowing that I have that stability, knowing I can put down roots somewhere is really exciting to me.”

The Courage, for their part, were thrilled to retain Williams, who in 2019 was the recipient of the club’s Community Service Award. 

“Lynn’s leadership, locker room personality, and impact on and off the field is immeasurable,” Coach Riley said in announcing her extension. “We are delighted to have her back and for Courage fans to see her in her prime over the next few years.”

One of the unique aspects of NWSL culture has always been the access that fans have to players, which has only increased with the ubiquity of social media. Even then, what many don’t see behind the scenes is the conditions that female footballers have been forced to contend with in order to play professionally. And while things like housing, meals, medical and training facilities have improved in recent years, the league is still a ways away from feeling fully professional. 

“For the longest time, people were living with host families,” Williams explains, “and you had to fend for yourself when it came to food. And it was like, how are you expecting us to be these top elite athletes, when for dinner sometimes my first year, I would have beans and queso and chips? Because that’s what I could afford.”

For Williams, the operative word for bringing about change is ‘investment.’ 

“It’s investing in players’ futures, investing in players’ environment and their willingness to want to be there. Making sure you have a great medical staff, so people feel supported and also safe.”

Williams also highlights the role the media can play in bringing more sponsors and money into the league, saying the teams which focus on storytelling will see their efforts rewarded. 

“[It’s about] investing in women and also putting their faces out into the world for people to see.”

The Courage themselves welcomed a high-profile investor in early 2021: tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who cruised through the Australian Open rocking all kinds of Courage swag.

Osaka’s decision to join the Courage as a partial owner signals another shift in momentum for the NWSL, following a number of celebrities investing in the Angel City expansion. This kind of big-name commitment is precisely what the league needs to not only raise its visibility, but to prove that women’s soccer will yield major future dividends. 

ANOTHER CHANCE TO WEAR THE CREST 

If you’d only started watching the USWNT this past November, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Lynn Williams has long been a staple player on this team. 

Williams earned her first cap in October 2016, and while she played for the team during both the 2017 and 2018 SheBelieves tournaments, she was not selected for the 2019 World Cup roster. 

Though devastated by the last-minute cut, Williams knew she was at a critical threshold in her career. While the national team might have temporarily passed on her, she knew she could prove herself as a player with her club. 

“I felt like, ‘I can either give up now and never know how good I could have been, or I can keep fighting.’ And at the time, my Courage team still needed me, and I said, ‘You know what, Lynn, instead of maybe going and not even getting a lot of minutes, and maybe you losing fitness, losing your touch, how about you come here and be the best Lynn you can be for this team, because this team needs you.’”

That decision proved to be fortuitous for Williams, the Courage, and now potentially the USWNT. 

North Carolina won the 2019 NWSL Championship in October, the same month Vlatko Andonovski took over the USWNT. Two weeks later, Williams was brought back into the fold for Andonovski’s first game as a manager. 

Since then, Williams has notched five goals, earned nine starts, and clocked more than 800 minutes on the pitch over the course of a handful of friendlies, two SheBelieves tournaments, and the most recent CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Williams doesn’t attribute her increased playing time to anything specific about Andonovski’s style, and tries not to focus too much on why she’s now seeing the field more than she has in the past. She will concede, though, that she has skills her coach looks for in his current system.

“I think that Vlatko sees my defensive side as key to the success of this team right now and my willingness to work back as a forward.” 

And then, of course, there’s her speed.

“That’s one-of-a-kind right now, the speed that I have.”

A COLLECTIVE RISES

Despite her strides within the national team, there’s still no guarantee Williams will make this summer’s 18-player Olympics roster. The competition is just that fierce. But whether or not she goes to Tokyo, Williams is already making an impact on the game. 

A founding member of the Black Women’s Player Collective, Williams is now working alongside her peers to elevate Black women in soccer. Throughout the process, she’s discovered her own voice as a leader in the sport. 

“For the longest time, I was somebody who was like, ‘don’t rock the boat, just play soccer and do that.’ And of course, people are going to think you stand up for Black lives because you are Black. In recent times, I realized that’s not enough. I’m not really doing anything or helping anybody by staying quiet.” 

As for many, 2020 changed everything when it came to speaking out on racial injustice. 

“I think over the past year, it’s just me being able to voice my opinion more, stand my ground, and also show other Black girls that soccer is a space for them… that I’m going to fight for their future.”

While she won’t give away any secrets about what’s to come, Williams noted a few of the BWPC’s initiatives include supporting legislation like Kentucky’s Senate Bill 4 and House Bill 21 seeking to ban no-knock warrants. The BWPC is also working to put soccer pitches in low income areas where fields aren’t as accessible. 

Behind the scenes, Williams is taking the time to engage teammates on the topics of race and social justice. The USWNT, in particular, has brought social justice to the forefront of its messaging. When asked if her conversations with teammates were as productive as the team’s public statements have indicated, Williams emphatically confirms, “Absolutely,” saying that change must begin with open dialogue.  

One of the players Williams has conversed with in earnest is her longtime roommate and friend (and former Courage teammate) Sam Mewis. 

In describing their conversations, Williams shares a glimpse of what talks at the national and club level have looked like, as players confront a feeling that many allies struggle with — how to push past the fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ in order to show up and engage in difficult discourse. 

“Especially right now, when you’re navigating this time and the race subject, people, white people especially, are like, ‘well, I don’t want to say the wrong thing and I don’t want to come off racist.’ And I think I have given Sam a safe space to ask questions. I know Sam’s heart and I know she would never mean to say something mean to me… it’s just opening her eyes to new perspectives. And I think that that’s the same thing that’s going on with the national team.”

“It’s honestly been so rewarding, not only for Sam, but for myself, too.”

WHAT COMES NEXT

Williams will miss the start of the NWSL’s second annual Challenge Cup tournament as she’s competing with the national team in a pair of friendlies in Europe against Sweden and France. Sweden famously knocked the USWNT out of the 2016 Olympics, while France came close to doing the same at the 2019 World Cup, making these games one of the last major tests the USWNT will face ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

With the Olympic roster still hanging in the balance, Williams is committed to simply being the “best Lynn I can possibly be.” That means fighting for herself, her club, her country, Black women in soccer and the next generation of professional players.

For any other player, that might seem like too much. For Lynn Williams, it’s just another chapter in her underdog story. 

The NWSL Challenge Cup begins Friday, April 9 at 8:30 pm ET on CBSSN with reigning champions the Houston Dash taking on last year’s runner ups the Chicago Red Stars.

The USWNT takes on Sweden in Stockholm on Saturday, April 10 at 1:00 pm ET on FOX. The USWNT then plays France in Le Havre on Tuesday, April 13 at 3:00 pm ET on ESPN2.

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