LYON, France -- The most versatile women’s soccer player in the world?
We put before you one Crystal Dunn, with Exhibits A, B and C.
In fact, the 2016 Olympian finds herself on the cusp of pulling off an astounding person hat trick with three different teams.
Exhibit A: As a striker with the Washington Spirit in 2015, Dunn led the National Women’s Soccer League in goal-scoring while securing MVP honors as well.
Exhibit B: As a playmaking midfielder with the North Carolina Courage in 2018, the then-26-year-old masterminded the attack as the club lost but once in the regular season en route to the league championship.
And Exhibit C: As a defender of the U.S. women’s national team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup going on now in France, Dunn and her teammates are one win away from winning the title in Sunday’s final against the Netherlands at Stade de Lyon. Dunn has been holding her own and then some against some of the best right-sided attacking players in the world.
When coach Jill Ellis decided to use the attack-minded Dunn at left back for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the biggest women’s soccer tournament on the planet, the move was considered risky by many members of the media and some observers. These weren’t pushovers that Team USA and Dunn would be facing. It would be the likes of Spain, France and England, all with imposing right-sided players.
None of her marks scored, which told you a lot about her performance and grit.
“Oh, she’s done amazing,” right back Kelley O’Hara said. “I’m so proud of her. She’s been huge this World Cup, has done a fantastic job. A lot of people were doubting her and asking if she was up for the role. I think she’s quieted a lot of people. I’m really proud of her because I have been through that before. It’s worked out and it’s worked out with Crystal. I can’t say enough good things about how she’s been for us.”
Dunn’s most memorable confrontation came in an epic battle against French forward Kadidiatou Diani, against whom the 5-2 left back gave away four inches and several pounds in the 2-1 quarterfinal win. Yet Dunn fought hard. She lost some battles but eventually won the war and essentially neutralized her foe.
“Just from training with her day in and day out the past year, I knew she was ready for it,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “She’s embraced it and she’s had an unbelievable tournament. She’s stepped up big time against very tough attacking players and she’s been able to do her job extremely well. I love her being part of our back line and playing behind her.”
Being so versatile can be a blessing or a curse because a player might not get an opportunity to stay at one position for very long. Dunn looked at it as a blessing.
“I go through phases where I hate how versatile I am,” she said prior to the World Cup, “and I go through those phases where I love it. I feel it makes me so unique and it makes me feel like I’m just in a different category. The more I embrace it and the more I open my heart knowing that this makes me special, makes me unique, and it’s awesome. That’s when I’m at my best. I think when I fight it I’m angry that I have to play so many positions. That’s when I am not bought in and I get upset and I don’t probably play at my best. So, going forward, I’m just embracing it and that’s who I am.”
When asked what her preferred position was, the Rockville Centre, New York, native did hesitate to answer.
“I definitely think I’m attacking player,” she said. “Where specifically in the attack, it’s hard to narrow down, but I do think if I had to pick a position, it would be a wide forward, a wide midfielder. This year I did actually play the 10, which was very much central (and) I got a good feel for that. It also helps who I’m playing with. My teammates literally help and put me in the best position to succeed, then every position is fun.”
Well, every position but one.
“Don’t ask me to play goal,” she said.
In 2015, Dunn wasn’t asked to play any position for the U.S. national side as she was one of Team USA’s last cuts for the Women’s World Cup in Canada, and she took the decision hard at first.
Instead of sulking, Dunn found inner strength to rebound and run roughshod through the rest of the NWSL, earning MVP and Golden Boot honors.
“Just going through that heartbreak of four years ago was a devastating moment for me, but I think I just turned the page,” she said. “I created a new storyline. That’s exactly what you need to do when you go through something like that. It’s just knowing that this is just one part of your life. This is not forever.
“The first thing I needed to realize was that missing out on this event, obviously was disappointing, but I had to realize that life was going to go on and I’m going to be OK. It didn’t break me. I came out on top. I came out a better player, a better person. You’re going to end up exactly where you need to be but you can’t lose focus or feel like somebody’s opinion is going to be the end all. You just have to make your own opinion about yourself and just continue to work.”
If Crystal Dunn continues to follow that philosophy, she and her teammates could be standing with gold medals hanging around their necks celebrating a World Cup triumph as the defender completes one rare hat trick.
Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.