NEW YORK — Crystal Dunn’s World Cup gold medal hangs on the door of a closet near her bed at home. She left it there by happenstance, but when she wakes up, it’s right there in front of her.
That’s a pretty good way to start a morning.
Then she goes to work with her club team, the reigning NWSL champion North Carolina Courage. That’s a pretty good way to spend the rest of the day.
“I’m still on cloud nine. We just won the World Cup, and I’m so very happy we were able to accomplish that,” Dunn said in an interview during some rare down time this week. “I think it’s been easy to transition because my team is so high-energy about soccer, and it’s a great environment for me to be in.”
Dunn’s return to North Carolina comes with the bonus of being freed from playing left back, where she plays for the national team. It is not her favored position, and she isn’t afraid to say so.
But she’s quite good at it, and she knows it. As such, she realizes she might keep playing it for the national team. Jill Ellis is one of many coaches in modern soccer whose tactical playbooks include outside backs covering more ground than almost anyone else on the field. They charge forward to spur attacks just as much as they charge back to snuff out opponents.
Dunn did this very well in the World Cup, especially against France in the quarterfinal win for the ages. French right winger Kadidiatou Diani was the hosts’ most dangerous attacking threat. Whenever she raced down the right wing, the 10,000 American fans in Paris and millions more back home held their breath. Yet Dunn shut her down time and again.
“That game is going to be in my mind for a very long time,” Dunn said. "I think a lot of people didn’t think I was capable of doing my job. And even though I’ve always believed in myself, I felt like that game allowed me to feel even better about my role and playing in a position that is my secondary position."
Dunn returned to the NWSL last weekend, when the Courage played the Chicago Red Stars in front of the largest crowd for a standalone club women’s soccer game in Chicago-area history. It was one of many attendance spikes across the league, and Dunn hopes the momentum keeps going.
“We don’t want it to be one game after the World Cup, ‘Yay, let’s all show our love and support,’ ” she said. “We want it to skyrocket from one season to another, and I hope people are seeing that these girls can play.
"The NWSL is filled with so many talented players, and we put out a good performance every week. ... People should want to come to these games, and not just be a part of women’s soccer in a World Cup year or in an Olympic year.”
There has also been a rise in commercial sponsors’ interest. Budweiser announced a big deal with the NWSL on the day of the World Cup final. Secret deodorant — owned by longtime U.S. Soccer Federation sponsor Proctor & Gamble — donated to the women’s players union and publicly told U.S. Soccer to fix the pay gaps between the men’s and women’s teams.
“We know the U.S. Soccer Federation is an organization of considerable strength,” read a full-page Secret ad in the July 14 New York Times. “It has the strength to be on the right side of history. ... We urge the U.S. Soccer Federation to be a beacon of strength and end gender pay equality once and for all, for all the players.”
Dunn hopes this is just the start, but also hopes that women’s soccer becomes more than just a cause.
“It’s not a donation. It’s an investment,” she said. “If winning four World Cups isn’t proof that women can play soccer and you should be coming out to these games, then I don’t know what else [is].”
Dunn spent Wednesday evening as a guest of honor at an NBC-hosted Olympics event marking one year to the start of the 2020 Games in Tokyo. It was only natural to ask what it will be like when the U.S. women turn attention from repeating as World Cup winners to preparing for next summer.
The Americans still haven’t forgotten the sting of losing in the Olympic quarterfinals three years ago. They’re also aiming to fill the one page of the history books that remains empty: No reigning World Cup winner has ever won Olympic gold the following year.
On top of that, Ellis faces the brutal task of cutting the World Cup squad of 23 players down to the Olympic squad of 18, with no retirements on the horizon and a slew of young prospects pushing to break through.
The hard work will start after the U.S.' five-game victory tour from August through early October, including a stop Aug. 29 at Lincoln Financial Field. Two games to be announced for November might offer the first big clues.
“It’s going to be a grind, physically and mentally for each player that was involved in the World Cup, and even players in the NWSL,” Dunn said. “I definitely would hate to be a coach making a decision like this.”