- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

After she was left off the U.S. World Cup roster last year, Crystal Dunn says there were days she didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.

Dunn turned her disappointment into drive.

“I think once I took it as, ‘There are other things waiting for me,’ that’s when I became a better player,” she said. “This is such a high level and it’s so easy to fall out of love with the sport because you’re in such an intense environment. We lose track about what it’s about, which is getting better, improving your craft and just enjoying the game.”

Dunn is a versatile 23-year-old midfielder for the U.S. national team. She’s on the young roster the Americans selected for the Olympic qualification tournament for the North and Central America and Caribbean region that starts this week in Texas.

The top two finishers qualify for the Rio Games. The United States has won the gold medal in the past three Olympics.

Dunn played soccer growing up in New York because her parents told her to go outside and run off her energy. Unlike some of her teammates who idolized players like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain as kids, Dunn didn’t start following the national team until she was a teenager.

“I remember watching Abby (Wambach) playing and that’s when I started realizing, OK, there is a future in this game, and it wasn’t just about having fun, you could actually have a career with this,” she said.

Dunn went on to win the Hermann Trophy as the top college women’s player and an NCAA championship while at North Carolina. She also played for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s junior teams, including the champions at the 2012 Under-20 World Cup.

Dunn got her first call-up to the national team in 2013 from then-coach Tom Sermanni and earned a spot on that year’s Algarve Cup roster. The Washington selected her with the first overall pick in the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League draft.

But she struggled with injuries ahead of last year’s World Cup and was eft off the roster for the qualifying tournament. She wasn’t prepared for the phone call from Sermanni’s successor, Jill Ellis, telling her she didn’t make the 23-player roster for her sport’s biggest event.

“It was super devastating to hear that I wasn’t going to part of such an amazing tournament. It hurt a lot,” she said. “It took a couple of weeks to dust myself off and continue to want to play the game after such a heartbreaking moment.”

But Dunn did just that, throwing herself into the NWSL season with the Spirit. She scored 15 goals in 20 appearances, earning the league’s Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player awards.

“For a long time there I was still battling injuries and I was constantly trying to get fit, I just wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t completely enjoying the game,” she said. “I would say getting left off the roster actually improved me in so many ways. I was stronger this past year, I was way more focused and I learned to love the game again.”

Ellis took note, bringing Dunn back for the post-World Cup victory tour. She scored and had two assists in her return, a 5-0 victory over Haiti in Detroit.

“Left side, right side, she’s impactful,” Ellis said. “I love her confidence. She’s back in and she’s making a case for herself.”

The U.S. team has a 20-player roster for Olympic qualifying that looks much younger from the group that won the World Cup. Veterans Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday and Laurie Chalupny have retired. Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe are out with injuries, and Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are pregnant.

The roster limit is 18 for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.

“It’s hard to feel like you have (a roster spot) in the bag,” Dunn said. “But I think with what I went through last year, I worked my butt off and I’m a completely different player. And I’d like to believe I’m someone the national team would like to keep on the roster.”

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