Putting the joy in junkyard dogs, Lynn Williams is back in North Carolina
Last season's MVP and Golden Boot winner, Lynn Williams discusses the first-place Courage season
Lynn Williams prior to the May 24 match between the North Carolina Courage and Sky Blue FC. Williams scored her third goal of the 2017 season, and the Courage won the game 2-0. (Photo credit: Andy Mead for isiphotos.com)
Lynn Williams prior to the May 24 match between the North Carolina Courage and Sky Blue FC. Williams scored her third goal of the 2017 season, and the Courage won the game 2-0. (Photo credit: Andy Mead for isiphotos.com)

North Carolina Courage forward Lynn Williams made her return to the National Women’s Soccer League this past Saturday, after missing three games thanks to a knock to her ankle during U.S. women’s national team training. Williams turned in a 66-minute performance that included six shots and three key passes in the 2-0 win over Seattle Reign FC at home. Now in her third season in the league — and part of the huge 2015 NWSL Draft class that included teammates Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis and Jaelene Hinkle in the first round — Williams is working on winning back-to-back NWSL Championships. And maybe, just maybe, with the way the Courage season is going so far, picking up the NWSL Shield along the way.

First, a quick recap of Lynn Williams’ whirlwind 2016: NWSL Most Valuable Player and NWSL Golden Boot winner for 11 goals and five assists in 19 games played during the regular season. She scored both goals in extra time during the wild semifinal against Thorns FC, including the game-winner that sent the Western New York Flash onto the NWSL Championship. One week later, she had her first call-up to the USWNT, then scored the equalizing goal in the 120+4’ during stoppage time of the Championship match to force penalties.

Oh, and she converted the final penalty for Western New York — before Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo made the winning save — to win the 2016 NWSL Championship on October 9. Ten days after that, she made her USWNT debut. Less than a minute after stepping onto the pitch at Rio Tinto Stadium, she scored her first goal wearing red, white and blue.

So yes, there’s a lot to live up to for Lynn Williams after break-out performances for her club and country. And her 2017 NWSL hasn’t quite gotten off to a similar start – she’s currently four goals behind last year’s mark of seven scored through Week 13. Part of that has been injury, and not just her own. Her partner on the top line, Courage forward Jessica McDonald had to recover from a left hamstring strain, as Williams suffered her right ankle sprain.

Williams has scored three goals so far this season, McDonald has added a pair of her own. In the meantime, rookie Ashley Hatch has stepped up, along with forwards Kristen Hamilton and Makenzie Doniak. The dynamic is different in 2017 as well – less big wins, more gritty 1-0 performances. Head coach Paul Riley has taken to posting photos of his notes for the team’s mentality on Twitter. This year’s theme: junkyard dogs.

“I think last year a lot of people didn’t see us coming,” Williams explains. “When we would play them, we were definitely the underdog and I think we took a lot of criticism. We really embraced that. It was us against the world, almost. This year, we have a little bit more of a target on our back. Going from a team where people didn’t expect us to win, or some people don’t even think we might have deserved to win, and we still have that target and that underdog kind of feel. Instead of letting it hinder us, we turn it and let it help us. So, if we’re going to have this target on our back, we have to think like a junkyard dog.”

Riley’s notes have phrases such as, fear nothing and be great in act as in thought. Some might interpret these as platitudes, but ultimately they reveal the entire approach to North Carolina Courage style of play. Players who play like junkyard dogs, Williams says, “they’re the kind that are going to defend their land and their territory no matter what. They’re grinding, they grit it out. Not every game has to be pretty, as long as you put in your whole effort. The games that we have done well, it has been about us performing and giving it our all. The games we haven’t performed well are when we have taken our foot off the pedal. We just always go back to that and think, if we’re not giving it our all then we’re doing ourselves a disservice. That’s the mentality we have.”

And this mentality seems to be working. The Courage are ahead of the pace they set in 2016 as the Western New York Flash – the team was 8-4-1 through 13 games played at this point last season. They were in third place in the standings, but only a point off the Shield-winning Portland Thorns’ record. This year, they’ve picked up an extra win, even if the Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC are nipping at their heels.

The wins are different and the home field is new, and so is the team chemistry on the top line. Those injuries to Williams and McDonald have had ripple effects, including new combinations including Williams and Ashley Hatch. The Courage have first-place worthy success, in part thanks to this new flexibility in who starts up top. It doesn’t hurt that the team is good enough and confident enough to learn on the fly.

“With Jess, it was definitely — I was looking up to Jess more. How can I work off Jess? Once we figured that out, we kind of just knew how to play with each other, and we were very good about feeding off each other and saying, ‘Jess, I think you need to this,’ and she’d be like, ‘Lynn, I need you to do this,’” Williams says. “Once you play with each other for a long time, you know each other’s tendencies and all that good stuff. With Ashley, she’s just such a hard-working person. She gives it her all every single day. Toward the beginning of the season, obviously me and Jess were playing more and so we were still building that bond. And then unfortunately Jess got injured. Hatch came in and we almost had to get to know each other very quickly in that game, and how each other plays. I think we’re still building on that. It was that game and then unfortunately I got hurt, so I hadn’t been playing for a month.”

Another one of Riley’s keys to being a junkyard dog: we are only a drop of rain. Together, we are an ocean. Or in other words: team before individuals. Whether it’s Williams and McDonald, Williams and Hatch, or Hatch and McDonald start, it’s all in service of the result.

For Williams, it means building a new relationship. “I’m honestly excited to see where mine and Ashley’s bond goes. I have taken on more of… not an older role,” she laughs as she says this, deftly avoiding calling herself a veteran player at age 24, “but a role model in trying to help her out any time I can. She’s more of a quiet person, and if I ever see something that can help her game, I’m like, ‘Hatch, why don’t you try doing this?’ I hope that she feels comfortable doing that with me, because I’m not perfect either. I think we’re getting there, it’s only been two games playing with each other. It just takes time, but so far, I think it was good. Hopefully we can keep building off that. I think it was awesome that she was able to score. She’s on fire right now, so I hope she keeps going.”

If there is one consistent element for Williams and the Courage that hasn’t changed since last season and their time as the Western New York Flash, it’s the internal focus. “We don’t really look at the standings,” Williams said.

It’s not that the results don’t matter, that each win isn’t a step that brings them closer to another trip to the playoffs and a back to go back-to-back as NWSL champions. It’s simply that for North Carolina, they let others do the talking. “Everybody keeps talking about, like you guys have been top for however many weeks,” Williams tells NWSL Media. “Yeah, that’s so awesome and great, but there’s still so much season to go. You never know what’s going to happen. Obviously, I would love to stay on top the entire time, but if we don’t that’s okay. I think we’re just more worried about how we’re going to perform, and what we’re doing to prepare ourselves well.”

There’s no sign that Lynn Williams is disappointed with her season so far, simply because she isn’t. Her team is in first place, and picking up wins. That’s what matters.

“We’re just such a team team. Every time somebody scores, we’re just so happy for them. We don’t think, oh my gosh, I wanted that to be me. It’s more like, this is a team and if I can play that ball so she can score or if I can play the pass to the pass so that person can score – or if I’m not even on the field and somebody scores, I’m still going to be just as excited because I know I helped. I’ve helped every single day for other people to prepare for this moment, and hopefully it all comes together on the field. That’s us in a nutshell.

“I laugh because I look at the pictures when my teammates score, and I get so excited. And then I look at the pictures of when I score,” Williams says. “I need to work on my celebrations apparently. I think those pictures literally say a thousand words, and it’s that we are so genuinely happy for somebody to be scoring. We don’t care who it is as long as the ball gets in the back of the net.”

So is Lynn Williams thinking Sam Kerr-levels of celebration? Nope. “She can work on backflips,” she says, laughing. “I would break my neck.”

That joy you can see on the field from Williams and the Courage isn’t fake. The new digs in North Carolina have been treating them kindly; they love the field at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary. They show up at local events and people already know who they are.

As ideal as the situation is, there is one area for improvement for Lynn Williams. She’s been on a quest to try a stadium dish, the Pork Tots from Backyward Bistro offered at the stadium on game days. So far, it hasn’t happened. “No! Nobody has given me pork tots!” Williams is still laughing when she says, “I’m so upset about it!”

“I love tots; I love pork,” Williams says. “I think the combination is amazing and I want to taste them. I keep hearing people are going to give them to me and I can’t find them. By the time the game is over, the vending thing is closed and it’s so upsetting.”

It might be a little hard to reconcile Lynn Williams, who is laughing and joking the entire interview, with the icon for the 2017 edition of the North Carolina Courage: the junkyard dog. But as much as the mentality is about grit and toughness, there’s another side to it. You fight for your pack. The Courage aren’t just the best in the league in the standings right now because of the soccer on the field. According to Williams, that’s just the external sign of the bond they share as a team.

“We’re such a close-knit group of women,” she says. She’s earnest, and the sentiment is real. “We’re so close, and we’re around the same age. It’s kind of cliché to say that we have a family feel, but we really do. We honestly genuinely love hanging out with each other. We’re with each other 24/7. We fight like sisters, and it’s just pretty amazing. I haven’t had this feeling on a team before, and I think that’s what you get out on the field as well.”

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