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Lynn Williams can’t be denied for Gotham, USWNT in 2023

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Gotham's Lynn Williams has six goals across all NWSL competitions in 2023. (Jonathan Jones/USA TODAY Sports)

The first third of the 2023 NWSL season has brought a few surprises, with clubs that finished at the bottom of the standings last season rising into the top four thanks to turnarounds in form.

Some of these shifts came from coaching changes or key acquisitions in the offseason. For Gotham FC, it’s been a little bit of both. The combination of new manager Juan Carlos Amorós and marquee acquisition Lynn Williams has the New Jersey club sitting in third place after seven matches played.

Williams is coming off the longest absence from the game in her professional career after recovering from a hamstring injury. What she’s been able to achieve so far this year not only has her club team on the rise, but could secure her a debut trip to the World Cup with the U.S. women’s national team in July.

A welcome return

After Williams suffered an acute hamstring injury before the 2022 regular season, the striker fell into a state of flux. Without ever getting serious time on the pitch with the Kansas City Current, she was traded to Gotham FC in the offseason, and no one knew exactly what to expect from her in 2023.

But in the last month, the forward has reminded the league why she’s near the top of the NWSL’s all-time leaderboard. Williams sits alone in second place with 61 regular-season goals in her NWSL career, only 16 behind the all-time tally set by Sam Kerr. She also recently surpassed Kerr for the all-time goal contributions record (combined goals and assists) with 103.

Williams crossing those milestones in 2023 is no small feat; with an injury as severe as a hamstring tear and a change in club environment, her return to top form was never guaranteed. As it stands, the 29-year-old is in the 92nd percentile of non-penalty goals per 90 forwards in 2023, and in the 75th percentile in non-penalty xG generated and total shots.

Leading Gotham with four goals in seven regular season games (and six in nine games across all competitions), Williams has helped the New Jersey club get off to a strong start after a down year. She’s already matched the regular-season scoring output of any Gotham player in 2022, and has done so with fellow forward Midge Purce limited due to injury.

All the same fundamentals

In addition to her offensive prowess this season, Williams’ defensive work rate has returned in full force. She’s in the 92nd percentile for NWSL forwards in tackles, interceptions and aerial duels won in 2023, and her willingness to be disruptive in key areas is fundamental to the ways Gotham has found success.

Those intangibles are a big reason why Williams has been a consistent call-up to head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s USWNT, which also excels when pushing a higher line of contention to force mistakes. Williams is the type of player who provides an attacking outlet on the wing and the ability to track back on defense, allowing the teams she plays for to get their outside back forward.

Gotham plays with this ethos to an even more aggressive degree than the USWNT. They go all-out in a high press to try to gain an edge early on in games. That approach requires intensity and commitment from the first whistle as well as a sense of discipline as legs begin to tire.

Growing into a new role

Williams said on a recent episode of Snacks that she feels she’s still growing in her ability to influence a match in Gotham’s system.

“Honestly, no. I don’t,” she said, when asked if she thinks she’s playing at the highest level of her career. “I feel like I am scoring at a higher percentage, which is great.”

She went on to explain that in the dominant, early years of her career, she was used to playing in a two-front system (North Carolina’s 4-2-2-2 box midfield was well-known as the team steamrolled to multiple titles in 2018 and 2019). Williams was known as a high-volume shooter and a high-scoring striker, meaning that the Courage’s overwhelming number of shots made for lower accuracy numbers, but a higher volume of chances that led to results.

With Gotham, Williams plays in more of a lone striker role, with support on the wings from the midfield. Sometimes this requires Williams to dip into the central midfield to receive service, but she’s also frequently tasked with sitting on the opponent’s backline and taking her chances when they arrive.

“I feel sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I just barely touched the ball,’” Williams said on Snacks. “But I guess that’s just how the system works.”

What should excite both Gotham and USWNT fans is that a system change that could have derailed Williams’ return to sharpness hasn’t seemed to slow her down at all. Williams has scored from both inside and outside the box, manipulating her stride to place the ball with her favored right foot. She’s also getting more experience playing centrally, mirroring the nuances of 2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith’s roles for club and country

“​​I feel like I’m getting back to myself, but I’m not there yet,” she said “So I feel like every game I’m like, ‘OK, my fitness is getting a little bit better. The taking on people is getting a little bit better. My shot’s better.’ But it’s been like a year, so … it’s baby steps.”

Williams feels she still has room to improve, but the way she’s been able to reshape her skill set not only boosts her case for inclusion on the 2023 World Cup roster, but also solidifies the argument that she should be starting. Time will tell if Andonovski prizes the new facets of her game or chooses to rely on Williams’ established reputation.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.