It’s nothing new that Crystal Dunn is one of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s best and most popular players.
But something about Dunn’s status right now feels a little more emphatic, a little more intentional. You see it in sponsors’ ads, in the national team’s social media posts, and in the many other ways an athlete is seen as a star these days. Her status will only grow in the coming months, as she gets ready for the Olympics and makes her club debut with the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, the league’s biggest team.
It’s also nothing new that Dunn is one of the U.S. team’s most forthright players. But she hasn’t always been forthright on a subject she cares about a lot: her distaste for playing left back with the national team.
Those who know her well, from her club coaches to teammates and media members, have long been aware of it. (That group includes this reporter, to whom Dunn called left back “my secondary position” in an interview after the 2019 World Cup.)
Only recently has Dunn been willing to really put it out there — and the biggest breakthrough came just last month. In an interview with Forbes, she said she wants to be a midfield playmaker for her country “because it is a position that not a lot of Black women play.”
“Playing at a 10 [creative role] means that I am now combating the stereotypes of being fast, physical, and strong,” Dunn said. “I am passionate about wanting the world to see more Black women, especially in the roles that don’t fit the stereotypes that have been placed on us.”
Why did Dunn decide to finally let loose now? She reflected on that in a news conference Saturday ahead of Thursday’s SheBelieves Cup opener against Canada (7 p.m., FS1, TUDN)
“I think I’ve always given the very soft answer of, ‘Yeah, I don’t like playing left back, you know, but I’m a team player,’ and all of that is so true,” she said. “But I think it’s also important people realize what I deal with on a daily basis is very much different than most players, you know.”
Dunn played an attacking midfield role for her former club, the North Carolina Courage. She is expected to have a similar job in Portland. She said she feels “more myself” in that position, “playing freely, getting involved in the attack, and just, you know, expressing myself in the way that I’ve always thought was the way I should be expressing myself.”
But she also wants to make sure she’s a role model as a team player.
“As much as I am proud to represent my country, be on this team, you know — right now considering myself a starter, but always competing to stay on the field and remain a starter, I think people need to know that, you know, I’ll do what it takes to be on the field, even if that means that I am not particularly happy inside,” Dunn said. “But I do think of the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is winning an Olympic gold medal, wanting to be a part, and being impactful on the field. And if that’s at left back, then that’s at left back.”
She also knows the bigger picture includes the fact that attacking midfield is the national team’s most stacked position. Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Lindsey Horan and now Catarina Macario are vying for starting jobs in the center; Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press are the leading wing creators.
Then comes the biggest roadblock of all. Dunn is the best left back in the national team pool, and it’s not close. In fact, the competition is so far behind that there isn’t a clear No. 2.
Casey Krueger (née Short and recently married) has come close to the status, but has never seized it. Emily Sonnett, a longtime centerback and right back, played some left back against Colombia last month. And while Emily Fox has a bright future, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NWSL draft hasn’t played a pro club game yet.
Meanwhile, Dunn keeps excelling. In fact she has gotten even better in the role under current U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski, whose playbook gives her considerable latitude to join the attack. She even got to play left wing some last month, which got plenty of attention. (Andonovski said afterward he knew how happy she’d be.)
“I think he really understands that a lot of us do play slightly different roles sometimes in club [teams] and with the national team, and I think he’s allowed people to feel as free as possible in that role,” Dunn said. “For me, obviously being an outside back, I’m like, yeah, I get it, gotta defend, but I’m also like, I’m trying to get involved in that attack, like, you know? And I think he understands that.”
However Dunn’s role evolves in the future, this much is certain: Her role as one of the U.S. national team’s most prominent players is only going to grow. And she will continue to not hold anything back.
“I think I am the one to push those boundaries and say, you know, we need to change the narrative of only white women play this sport, only white people play this sport,” she said. “I want to be very clear that whether it is me who is ever considered a face of women’s soccer, that really isn’t my goal, but my goal is for the Black women coming after me to feel like they even have a chance to be the face of this sport.”