Back in April, Crystal Dunn found herself in a dark place to kick off what turned into a fruitful National Women’s Soccer League campaign.
The 23-year-old ultimately collected Golden Boot honors after leading the league with 15 goals. The MVP trophy seems like a mere formality for the second-year star. And, she’ll lead the Washington Spirit into the postseason on Sunday when they visit the top-seeded Seattle Reign in a semifinal clash.
But after sustaining a knee injury last fall, Dunn fell to the fringes of the U.S. national team during the buildup to the Women’s World Cup. When U.S. coach Jill Ellis was preparing to name her 23-player roster in mid-April, Dunn discovered that Spirit coach Mark Parsons was keeping her on the bench for Washington’s season opener against the Houston Dash.
“I was already very stressed about the whole World Cup situation,” Dunn said. “I remember crying to him: ‘This is not the time to not start me. This is the worst thing that could happen right now.’”
Parsons regretted the decision to sit Dunn the moment she entered as a second-half substitute at striker. The Spirit dropped a 2-0 result, but Dunn and her coach recognized they had found something special. After spending her rookie year filling gaps in defense, Dunn “just felt free” up top.
“As soon as we put her in, she was so sharp and in great shape and had this attitude and mentality to win,” Parsons recalled.
From a national team perspective, though, it was too late. When U.S. Soccer revealed the World Cup roster four days later, Dunn was one of just two players trimmed from the 25-woman team used in the preceding months.
“It was a disappointment for me,” Dunn said. “Hearing the phone call, I was like, ‘Bummer, bummer, bummer. I don’t know how I’m going to bounce back. Two and a half years has really gone down the drain right now.’”
Dunn immediately began turning that setback into a positive with Washington. Reinventing herself up top, she scored in a win over FC Kansas City in the subsequent match and bagged a pair of goals a week later against Sky Blue FC.
Rather than sit on the bench for the U.S. in Canada — an experience she said “would have just eaten me alive slowly” — Dunn seized an opportunity to take the NWSL by storm. Even after the U.S. stars returned to the league following their World Cup-winning exploits, it was Dunn who claimed NWSL Player of the Month honors for August.
“She was 100 percent behind the decisions that Jill made and she was then also 100 percent behind us,” Spirit midfielder Tori Huster said. “I think she did a great job of handling it, especially at such a young age. I don’t think many players could turn that decision around the way she has.”
Added Dunn: “As much as I would have loved to be a part of that whole experience, I think something really great came out of it.”
While Dunn has mostly played as a fullback for the national team, she certainly proved herself as a viable option at forward this season. The speedy, 5-foot-1 player also saw time at central midfield and center back at North Carolina and considers wide midfield her preferred position.
Parsons, for his part, figures Dunn will be used as a winger for the national team in the short term but thinks her rapidly evolving talents are best utilized in central areas.
With squads for next summer’s Olympics limited to 18 players, Dunn’s versatility could make her a particularly enticing option as the U.S. looks to earn a fourth consecutive gold medal.
“I think I take in information pretty well,” Dunn said. “You’re told you’re going to play a different position and most people are like, ‘I don’t really see myself doing that,’ but I think I’ve learned to embrace new roles.”
Two weeks after being cut from the U.S. roster, Dunn was summoned to the Americans’ pre-World Cup camp to fill out the numbers in practice while midfielder Tobin Heath recovered from a hamstring injury. Dunn acknowledged it was a tough experience, as she trained but sat out the photo shoots and media interviews that kept her teammates occupied.
“I’m kind of like the loner sitting there cheering them on,” Dunn said. “But I’m a part of U.S. Soccer, and for me it wasn’t an option to say no, so I was 100 percent all in.”
Although the World Cup snub burned, Dunn should have plenty of opportunities to shine on the international stage. The next time the U.S. gathers for a major tournament, there’s a good chance Dunn will be there again — this time as more than an alternate.
“The elite of the elite, the best of the best — and that’s what she can be — they have these stories of failure or setback,” Parsons said. “The ones that get there, they have to push through that. If she continues to learn and have the same mentality, we’re going to see one of the best this country has ever seen. I’m so confident of it.”