Crystal Dunn battles for the ball with Sweden forward Sofia Jakobsson at Stade Oceane. Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports
By Michael Lewis
LE HAVRE, France — The U.S. women are three for three.
Three games, three wins, three shutouts.
Not too shabby for a team whose defense and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was considered its weak link in the Women’s World Cup.
For the first time in eight competitions, the Americans blanked all their group-stage opponents, joining Germany (1991) as the only teams to accomplish that in the 28-year history of the tournament.
True, the first two clean sheets were against such lightweights as Thailand and Chile (13-0 and 3-0 wins, respectively). But Sweden was the first real challenge for the USA in this tournament and the defending world champions passed that test.
“I mean, we love hearing people doubt us,” defender Crystal Dunn said. “It always goes back to us always wanting to be perfect and get better and grow. We had to go through those games where we weren’t perfect defensively.”
Dunn was referring to games earlier this year in which the defense was shaky at key moments.
“But it’s good to go through those leading into the World Cup and actually in the World Cup. Everything we did before the World Cup prepared us to be at our best and we’re still peaking and trying to get better every game.”
The USA will get an opportunity to show the world how far it has peaked against Spain in the Round of 16 in Reims Monday. The Americans managed to escape its international friendly vs. the up-and-coming squad with a shaky 1-0 win as Christen Press scored the lone goal in that January encounter.
But that was then. This USA squad is a different team with a different mentality in the knockout stage.
“Spain is really a great possession-based team,” Dunn said. “The last we played them I remember them being so good on the ball. We would throw players at them and they were still able to find their way out. We’re going to be prepared for that this round. It’s really about us. ItIs knowing that they are a respectable opponent.”
Dunn said the U.S. was trying to send a message to anyone through the win over Sweden.
“It’s obviously hard because we focus so much on us,” she said. “We don’t really focus on how other teams view us. I hope that the teams that are watching us play [see] that we are a complete team. We’re not just a high-press team. We’re a possession team. We want to move the ball and go for opportunities to catch teams out of their position. We just love to share the ball. The team that is going to go on to win is the team that will have so many threats, doesn’t rely on any one player. People should know that we rotate our players. We have a strong 23. We’re always fresh and ready to go.”
The key for the Rockville Centre, N.Y. native? Confidence, confidence, confidence at an outside back position that was not her first choice to play. Dunn is an attacking midfielder for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“For me this World Dup is all about confidence,” she said. “Playing outside back in a World Cup where its not really my first position. It’s just me stepping on the field feeling that I can do it. My team is asking me to do a job and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. I know regardless if I win that possession or not, I have Becky Sauerbrunn behind me. It’s not a bad person to clean things up when I’m not successful.
Someone asked Dunn whether she thought if it was silly to think the U.S. would lose purposely against Sweden to avoid France in the quarterfinals.
“Do I think it’s silly? Of course. We’re winners. We want to win. We don’t want to take the easy way out. For anyone to think we were going to throw this game and not play France in Paris is crazy. But of course, they have to get to that that round, and we have to get to that round. We had to gain momentum and winning this game the way we did tonight is the only way we knew going into the knockout round best prepared.”
The former Albertson Soccer Club and Rockville Centre Soccer Club standout did not score, but was pushed forward from her left back position. In fact, Dunn already had taken two shots in the opening 12 minutes compared to Sweden’s none.
“I always love being higher up the pitch,” she said. “Being able to collect those balls just means I’m pushing on and helping in the attack. That’s what my team asks for me at time and I hope to deliver.”