Interviews

From overlooked to NWSL MVP, USWNT: Lynn Williams' rise, through her eyes

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries and surgeries defined Lynn Williams' teen years. She tells FourFourTwo the story of her climb from overlooked high-school recruit to NWSL MVP and USWNT player.

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

CARSON, Calif. -- Lynn Williams possessed all the tools to go far in soccer, it was just a question of opportunity.

The second-year NWSL forward, who claimed league MVP award in 2016 as she led the Western New York Flash to the championship, is getting her chance with the United States women’s national team. Her goal-scoring debut last month against Switzerland shows why head coach Jill Ellis believes she can make an impact for her country.

She's shown me enough to say yeah, let's continue to invest in this player at this point.”

- Jill Ellis

Williams has tremendous athleticism, and her ability to get behind defenses has been a defining element in her game. But in reality, she's something of a hybrid: a target striker who can hold the ball with back to goal, and a speedster who can race past defenders to finish through balls and balls over the top.

“She's gained confidence in the league, so coming into this environment, the easiest thing I said to her is you've played against these players, so come in and show us what you've got. Don't overthink it,” Ellis said after the Yanks' 5-0 romp Sunday night over Romania at StubHub Center, in which Williams received her fourth cap and third start.

“She's shown me enough to say yeah, let's continue to invest in this player at this point.”

The path to this point has been arduous, with repeated setbacks balanced by twists of fate, seemingly out of nowhere. Williams might not be here if not for a chain of unexpected moments. She shared her journey with FourFourTwo.

Fresno, California

Williams received little attention during her time at Bullard High School, where she scored 117 goals with 47 assists -- 50 goals as a senior -- and with the East Fresno United Fusion, with whom she won a Cal-North state title. Injuries kept her from finding her best form before her senior year.

“In eighth grade, I found out that I had broken my foot at the growth plate, and so my freshman year I had surgery. The next year, I went to a check-up appointment and found out that I had broken through the pin that they had put in my foot, so I had to go back and kind of re-do the whole surgery again. And then my junior year, I went for a checkup and my foot wasn't feeling right, and they said my pins were starting to push their way out of your body, so I had to have another surgery. Every single year, and anybody that's ever had a surgery will let you know that your muscles don't bounce back real fast. They might take a year or longer to come back. And on top of that, your foot skills and your fitness and a lot of things.

I played through everything. I played on my broken foot and had the surgeries in the offseason, and having to manage that was pretty difficult."

“I played through everything. I played on my broken foot and had the surgeries in the offseason, and having to manage that was pretty difficult. But my senior year came and I was feeling good, and I was really able to excel and show what I had that I wasn't able to show the first three years.

“I also had finally found a club team that I really liked, so everything came together my senior year. East Fresno Fusion was just a one-team club, U-18, and my coach, Hubert Alvarez, and his assistant coaches, they're amazing and really helped me develop. I was mainly just a center forward, and they used my feet a lot. I have a bigger frame, I like to call it: I am strong, I can hold the ball, so just play the ball into me, and then being fast, in high school I felt you could just kick it over the top and I'd run onto it.

“My friend Alejandra Diaz, who played at Boston University, is a year older than me, and she was in midfield and we had been playing together since I was 6 and she was 7, so she knew what balls I liked being played, and we had a really great connection. Having that person who knew exactly what you want without ever having to say it, that honestly helped so much in my growth.”

Malibu, California (2011-2014)

Williams went to Pepperdine University, a Christian school located on the ocean a few miles up Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. Tim Ward has built a solid mid-major program, guiding the Waves to three West Coast Conference titles -- one in Williams' freshman year; they were 55-19-10 as she scored 39 goals with 24 assists from 2011 through 2014-- and three NCAA Sweet 16 appearances, with another available this weekend.

Being in Fresno, I wasn't highly recruited at all. I was getting more letters from colleges to run track."

“Being in Fresno, I wasn't highly recruited at all. I was getting more letters from colleges to run track. You know the Surf Cup, in San Diego? A lot of big clubs get to go to Surf Cup, and all the D1 colleges are there. We weren't a big club, so we didn't get to go to Surf Cup. The summer before my senior year, we went to Harvest Cup, a neighboring tournament in San Diego where the D2 and D3 schools go. Cal State San Bernardino's coach [Travis Clarke, now at St. Mary's] saw me and told Pepperdine, ‘You need to check her out.’ And I had a teammate from my club team playing at Pepperdine, Anisa Guajardo, and I guess she said great things about me.

“So some of the Pepperdine coaches actually drove up to Fresno, the 3½-4 hours, saw one of my practices, then drove straight back. On their way home, I called them just to say thank you so much for coming, and they said you really need to come and take a visit, so I did, and that's when they offered me my scholarship. Pepperdine and Fresno State, those were the only two colleges that were recruiting me.

“I owe Anisa a lot. And the San Bernardino coach, whom I've never met.

“I think it's a miracle that I was at Pepperdine, and people don't view us as this huge powerhouse soccer school, but it's an amazing program. Everything went well my freshman year, but my sophomore year I was playing on a torn meniscus and got it fixed after the season. The doctor said, “You're not going to hurt yourself any worse,” so it was perfect. I can stand the pain.

Those surgeries were hard for me. I'm a pretty cheery, happy person, but I definitely went through depression, and I contemplated not even playing anymore. I wondered if it was worth it to go through all this."

“Then found out my junior year that I tore my labrum in my hip. I felt like I was having a great season [with 11 goals in 15 games] and they said I could play on it -- kind of the same thing as with my knee -- and with four games to go, we were playing at Pacific, and I had a collision with the goalie and shattered my elbow. My season was over, it was heartbreaking, and I had to have elbow-reconstruction surgery. And a month and a half after that, I got my labrum fixed. I was a big mess. I was spending way, way too much time in operating rooms.

“Those surgeries were hard for me. I'm a pretty cheery, happy person, but I definitely went through depression, and I contemplated not even playing anymore. I wondered if it was worth it to go through all this. Then I stopped feeling sorry for myself and rehabbed hard. After a weak moment, I said, ‘You know what, Lynn? You're going to do this and you're going to come back even stronger, and that's what I did.’

“When you're playing, you don't really see yourself play, unless you're watching film. One thing that helped me was when I was out, I was able to sit back on the sidelines and watch my teammates practice. I noticed what we did well and what we didn't do so well, so when I got back on the field, I felt I knew what I could improve on. I can improve on these types of runs and this touch and my finishing. My right foot was way stronger than my left foot, so I kind of hit “reset” and worked on my left foot, started doing everything in training with my left foot.

“I knew I was athletically gifted and I relied a lot on that in my game, but going through that helped me get more of a soccer brain. All the surgeries I've had, they've been hard and rehabbing has been hard, but they've kind of been a blessing in disguise. I guess I can say I'm thankful for them, in a weird way.

“My senior year was incredible. I felt great, we had a great senior class, nine of us who had been through ups and downs and Pepperdine, and we were like, 'We're going to lead this team and we're going to go far.’ We were ranked in the top 10, and we made it to the third round of the NCAA tournament, and I did well [with 14 goals, 10 assists and first-team All-America honors]. We lost to UCLA, who were unbeaten and the defending NCAA champs, and I think we played a great game against them, but they scored in the 88th minute to win, 1-0. It was heartbreaking. But I couldn't cry, because I was like, ‘What else could we do? We had an amazing year.’ Just sad to know that was my last game and I wouldn't be playing with my teammates anymore. That was the saddest part.

NEXT: Another injury...then stardom