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Lynn Williams deserves a chance to start for USWNT

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Six months ago, USWNT fans were arguing whether Lynn Williams deserved a spot on the team’s Olympic roster. The best-case scenario for Williams (at the time) was simply making the final 18, while at worst she’d be an alternate. Even her most ardent supporters weren’t sure whether she’d actually get much playing time in Tokyo.

But after a standout game against Paraguay on Thursday in which she scored and had two assists, as well as a tournament-saving performance against Netherlands in Tokyo — to say nothing of Williams’ years of NWSL production — it’s clear the terms of the conversation have shifted.

It’s no longer a question of whether she deserves to make the team. Williams is here to stay. The new question is whether she should start for the USWNT. And the answer is that Williams clearly deserves a chance.

Williams was one of the last players cut from the 2019 World Cup team, but was brought back into the USWNT fold once Vlatko Andonovski took over as coach.

At the time, the scouting consensus on Williams was that she had above-average defensive abilities (for a forward) and was probably the fastest player on the pitch, but needed to work on consistently finishing in front of goal.

“I think that Vlatko sees my defensive side as key to the success of this team right now,” Williams told Just Women’s Sports back in April, “and my willingness to work back as a forward.”

Williams was initially named an alternate for Tokyo, with Andonovski calling it a “good next step” for the forward:

Hopefully she’ll be on the full roster in the near future or in the World Cup, 2023. We know the quality that she has.”

Williams ended up making the full Olympic roster after FIFA modified the rules to include alternates. After hardly seeing the field in the group stage, Williams was chosen to start against Netherlands in a must-win quarterfinal match.

The USWNT went down 1-0 early in the match, before Williams took over. She first assisted Sam Mewis to tie the game at one before scoring herself — with a beautiful finish in the box — to give the team the lead.

In the biggest game of her career, Williams proved she was more than a defensive specialist and put to bed the narrative that she can’t make plays in front of goal.

The performance wasn’t a surprise to anyone who has watched Williams’ club career. With 56 goals in the NWSL, she’s second on the league’s all-time scoring list, just 11 behind Sam Kerr. Even this year, she ranks sixth in the league, which might not seem impressive, until you take into account the time missed while in Tokyo. No. 1 and 2 scorers Bethany Balcer and Sydney Leroux have each scored eight goals in 18 games. In seven fewer games, Williams has scored six.

Can Williams, 28, consistently score on the international stage? Williams had the third-most points on the USWNT in 2020 after Lindsey Horan and Christen Press. In 2021, she ranks sixth in goals and assists, despite having only eight starts. If her playing time matched the other big-name forwards on the team, it’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t keep pace.

Context is important here: Carli Lloyd is retiring in October. Megan Rapinoe could soon follow. Christen Press and Alex Morgan will both be 34 at the next World Cup. Tobin Heath will be 35.

Lloyd has proven that players can still be productive well into their 30s, but it’s clear that Andonovski will need fresh legs in Australia. And with World Cup qualifiers just around the corner, now is the time to give younger players their chance.

On a team with so much talent, versatility is crucial — and that’s exactly what Williams has. She scores goals but is also good defensively, a game-changing quality often overlooked in the attacking third. Andonovski has repeatedly praised her ability to press other teams in sparking the USWNT’s counter-attack. In Tokyo, Williams proved the stage wasn’t too big for her. And yes, at the 2023 World Cup, she will still probably be the fastest player on the pitch.

Williams has made the most of her limited opportunities, and her trajectory is still pointing up. Heading into preparations for the 2023 World Cup, it would be smart to give the young veteran a more significant role on the team. Big things happen when she’s on the pitch; she just needs playing time to prove it.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports and the Head of North American Content for Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.