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U.S. soccer builds promising future around its young stars

CARY, N.C. — It was Saturday afternoon, in a small conference room tucked in the upper reaches of North Carolina’s signature soccer grounds, when Jill Ellis made a sweeping motion with her right arm, like a plane taking flight, from the lectern to the wood-paneled ceiling above.

She spoke, in this moment, of forward Lynn Williams, one of the numberless upstarts on Ellis’s invigorated U.S. women’s national team. Williams, who scored 49 seconds into her national team debut a year ago, netted the penultimate goal Sunday in a 6-0 friendly win against South Korea. The 9,727 fans at Sahlen’s Stadium near Raleigh couldn’t be fooled into grand delusions after this win, an exhibition romp over the 15th-ranked team in the world.

Yet there was something reassuring, perhaps, about the arc drawn by Ellis’s arm, and the trajectory of Williams and the youthful vanguard of this team. For amid the most challenging schedule undertaken by this program in its recent history, and amid a most trying time for its national federation, there is reason to believe in the upswing of a U.S. national soccer team.

“Whenever I talk about pressure and this team,” Ellis said, “it doesn’t matter what everybody else is doing. It’s the expectation that’s always put on ourselves.”

After last summer’s quarterfinal ouster in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the charge for Ellis was to avert the trappings of complacency. “If you want to find the magic fairy dust for being in this program,” she said, “it’s consistency.”

Ellis gave her players three directives, all with World Cup qualifying — to be held next fall — in mind. The next nine months would entail the most formidable slate of matches this team has faced in the aftermath of a World Cup-Olympics cycle: 16 matches, second in volume only to 1997, and a dozen meetings with countries ranked within the top 15, culminating with a home-and-home series against Canada in November. The roster would deepen, by way of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). And the group would get younger, with merit-based selections owing to their performance, or lack thereof, on their club teams. “I was willingly and actively looking for the future,” Ellis said of her post-Rio blueprint. She found it.

With its win Sunday against South Korea, the U.S., which scored three goals in the first 35 minutes, improved to 11-3-0 in 2017, with lone defeats to the third, fourth and sixth best teams in the world. Ellis has brought in 23 new players since last October with the aid of the NWSL. Sunday’s roster alone featured Williams and three other players from North Carolina Courage, which plays its home matches at Sahlen’s Stadium. Only two players, veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn and midfielder Sam Mewis, who scored twice Sunday, have appeared in every 2017 match.

“You can take the approach where you bring in players for 10 minutes at the end of each game and they kind of clean up, or you trust them and test them and put them in at the beginning of the game,” Ellis said. “That’s the approach I took.”

It’s been a particularly auspicious year for Williams, the 2016 MVP of the NSWL and the league’s fourth-leading scorer for the Courage in 2017. Her MVP award, which came in her second professional season, warranted an earnest look from Ellis for the national team. She promptly set the American women’s record for fastest goal in an international debut, and she scored the lone goal in a March win against Germany, the 2016 Olympic champion. Williams was asked how she makes sense of this, an unforeseen ascent in just 12 months.

“I don’t,” she laughed. “It’s crazy to think about.”

“Every single time you come to camp, it’s almost like a new camp for me,” she said. “Obviously, you know the ropes a little bit better, but at the same time, soccer-wise, it’s just new. You’ve got to bring it. I’m just honored and blessed to be here a year later.”

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Williams, making her fourth-career start Sunday, needed little time to look conspicuous. Ellis describes Williams as a ruthless defender, a hound on the ball whose speed, and doggedness, causes turnovers and creates scoring chances. In the sixth minute Sunday, Williams hunted down a South Korean defender, giving the U.S. possession in the attacking third. Williams would find the target twice in the next nine minutes, and her threatening cross in the final minute of the first half forced the corner kick that produced Julie Ertz’s 4-0 goal.

“I absolutely adore Lynn,” Ellis said. “She is a sponge. She wants to learn. She’s got a fire in her eyes. She’s in every game. She’s in every training. She’s on the front foot, and you can see that in how she plays. She’s someone who wants to impact the game.”

Williams, the quickest player on the pitch Sunday, scored her fourth career goal in the 61st minute. Megan Rapinoe, a halftime substitute, grabbed a loose ball off a turnover near the South Korea box and fed Williams for a tap-in.

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A minute later, Williams narrowly missed the inside of the far post. Fifteen minutes later, Williams broke free down the near touchline and delivered a perfect ball to Carli Lloyd, another halftime substitute, who headed a veritable layup off the far post.

Yet Williams, for her speed and her voracious attack, finds herself in a thicket on the U.S. front line — from Alex Morgan to the recently injured Mallory Pugh and Tobin Heath, to Christen Press, whose upper-corner strike at the top of the box provided the goal of the match Sunday. Rapinoe also belongs to that group, though she believes this team’s ascent is closer to Ellis’s lectern than the ceiling.

“I think we’re at kind of the beginning of the learning curve,” Rapinoe said. “There’s been a lot of change, a lot of different players, different systems. I think it’s time to kind of start buckling down and getting into the nitty-gritty of how we want to play.”

For Williams, that is fast, and hard, and direct. With her postgame media availability finished Sunday, she rounded a corner toward throngs of kids clad in red and blue jerseys. “Lynn!” they shouted. “Lynn!” She smiled. While she ambled toward the fray, the fans raised their arms, up toward a sky without a ceiling.

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