In The Journey to the Cup, The Athletic follows six players as they work towards a place in the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Follow along as we check in with them each month in the build-up to the tournament, tracking their progress as they prepare both mentally and physically for a chance to shine on the game’s biggest stage.
It was a long, long 10 months for Lynn Williams.
Technically, it was 329 days between appearances for the U.S. women’s national team.
Williams picked up a late substitution in the team’s final match of the 2022 SheBelieves Cup in Frisco, Texas on Feb. 23. On Mar. 18, while on the field with the Kansas City Current, she tore her hamstring completely off the bone, requiring surgery. Earlier this month, she finally made her return to the pitch in New Zealand for the U.S.’s first match of 2023, a friendly against the Football Ferns. She took the field at Sky Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand in the 67th minute. In the 74th, she scored the team’s fourth and final goal.
She didn’t expect her first match back to be with the national team, but instead at the NWSL level.
“Training, it was really tough,” she said on Tuesday in her first Zoom call as a NJ/NY Gotham FC player. “You’re going from 10 months of rehabbing and stuff, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for the national team. Putting my hamstring through that load again was really tough.”
She wasn’t even sure she’d make her return during the January camp. She was on a minutes limitation for obvious reasons — there’s no going from zero to a full 90 minutes, after all — but the goal was a product of exactly what she and the team had been working on in training.
“I just thank my mom and dad for giving me some athletic ability to get up in the air,” she joked on Tuesday.
“[@trinity_rodman] just put the ball on a platter and I got my little butt up in the air and nogged it in.”
— @lynnraenie https://t.co/6DPULzlt39 pic.twitter.com/CEHUWs234M
— U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (@USWNT) January 18, 2023
Williams has a long history of hip issues, stemming from a hip labral tear she suffered in college (the labrum in the hip is a piece of cartilage that lines the hip locket where the femur connects).
“It’s always kind of hurt,” she said on Snacks, her podcast with Sam Mewis, in May 2022. “I’ve had multiple MRIs, and every time I get one, they say (my) hip looks fine — but obviously, I’m still in pain.”
She received multiple cortisone injections, was diagnosed with sacroiliac joint dysfunction (improper movement of the joints at the base of the spine that connect the spine to the pelvis, which can cause leg and back pain), was recommended to see a pelvic floor specialist, and was diagnosed with chronic high hip tendonitis. She couldn’t do certain exercises because of how much they hurt her hamstring.
The major injury that sidelined her for the entire 2022 NWSL season happened during the opening match of the Challenge Cup between the Current and Racing Louisville FC.
“(I) went on a sprint to block a shot or block the outside back from playing the ball down the line, and I felt a pop. I tried to jog it off — didn’t work — and sat down on the field,” Williams said. Mewis jogged over to her and asked what had happened, and Williams guessed she had “ripped (her) hamstring tendon off the bone.” Mewis doubted it in the moment. “Turns out I did,” Williams said in May, wrapping up the story.
For all of the joy to be back on the field in New Zealand that Williams must have been experiencing, it was so clear her teammates felt just as strongly.
Mallory Swanson was sitting on a brace during the Wellington match, and in the post-game press conference she was asked if she was disappointed to be subbed off while a hat trick was still in reach.
“No,” she replied, “because I saw Lynn standing there. Her road to recovery has been pretty incredible to watch, and just to see her come in and make an impact and score a goal goes to show what a great player she is. So I was really happy, honestly, because she was coming in.”
“The national team is a crazy place,” Williams said on Tuesday, when asked about the support of her teammates through her recovery. “It’s such an honor and a privilege to be there, but it’s a bunch of psychopaths on one team. The few people that have been there are the only ones who understand what you’re going through.”
Williams said the challenge of being in the USWNT environment, staying healthy, “being on top of your game every single moment of every single day” is a compounding challenge. Her teammates know that exact pressure, and that’s why the support is so meaningful. On Tuesday, she brought up her passing accuracy in that first New Zealand game, knowing her touch was off, to the point where she felt the need to apologize mid-game.
“I went to Lindsey (Horan) and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t think I’ve connected a pass. And she goes, ‘You gotta give yourself some grace. You just scored a goal.’”
As successful as the trip to New Zealand was for her in the overall journey back to the national team, she did also get some unexpected news while in camp with the squad. Williams was part of a massive NWSL draft-day trade between the Current and Gotham FC for the No. 2 overall pick, which the Current used to draft Duke’s Michelle Cooper.
Welcome to #GothamFC, @lynnraenie!
We’ve acquired #USWNT forward Lynn Williams in exchange for the 2nd overall pick in the 2023 @NWSL draft. pic.twitter.com/bF8AFmNVUp
— NJ/NY Gotham FC (@GothamFC) January 12, 2023
“KC, I’m just as shocked as you are. I would have loved to play in front of you,” she wrote in her caption on an Instagram post made the day after the draft. “Gotham, I couldn’t be more excited to get things started!! LFG!!!”
Williams explained her timeline of the trade on Tuesday, and the shock is understandable: She found out the trade was a possibility two hours before it happened.
“Then I found out I was traded in real time, as you guys did,” she said.
“I’m in New Zealand at my first camp (back) and it just kind of threw me for a second, but in this world, and in soccer, you have to be able to compartmentalize and that’s exactly what I did at the time. I was with the national team, so I focused on the national team. Now that camp is over, I can put all my energy into Gotham. At the end of the day, you want to be somewhere where a team wants you, and I want to be at Gotham because they want me.”
She did say that all of her first experiences with Gotham so far have been encouraging, beyond just promises on style of play.
“There’s definitely a human side to things, and Gotham so far has gone above and beyond to not only get Lynn, the soccer player, but Lynn, the human, here as well.”
She’s had calls with new Gotham head coach Juan Carlos Amorós, general manager Yael Averbuch West, the training staff, and the team has helped with her relocation — all the things you’d expect and hope for.
Gotham will be a new environment with a much larger goal of simply making the playoffs, and turning around the team’s last-place finish in 2022. It’s not an impossible task (consider Williams’ previous team and their path to the NWSL final last season), and Williams was specifically scouted by Gotham to fit Amorós’s planned style.
Beyond her proven ability to score goals in the NWSL, during the draft, he said, “On and off the ball, she works really hard. I think we want to help normalize and drive those standards on the offensive side.”
If Williams is able to make an immediate impact in Jersey, the same way she did in her first match back after her latest injury, she’ll help shore up her position in a very, very crowded USWNT forward pool ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Gotham might not have been in the plans as she imagined them, but she’s embracing the change.
As she noted, she’s never missed the playoffs as a NWSL player since her rookie season in 2015. It doesn’t sound like she’s about to start now.
“After the initial shock wore off, I was able to just take a step back and say, ‘You know what? I think this is actually going to be a good thing.’ A new start with a new hamstring tendon, and I’m excited for 2023.”
“The Journey to the Cup” series is part of a partnership with Google.
The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.
(Top photo: Graham Denholm/Getty Images; Design: Rachel Orr)
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