Everyone, it seems has a different opinion, as to what is Crystal Dunn’s best position. (Michael Chow – USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

PARIS — Crystal Dunn was given a preview of what was to come in the SheBelieves Cup during a 1-1 draw with France at Red Bull Arena on March 4, 2018.

The Rockville Centre, N.Y. native had replaced forward Mallory Pugh in the 73rd minute and figured she would get an opportunity to be part of the United States attack in an attempt to secure a victory. After all, Dunn had proven to be a most dangerous weapon, tying a U.S. record by scoring five times during an Olympic qualifying win in 2016.

As it turned out, by the final whistle, she had much different worries — as a left back to make sure that France wasn’t going to score the game-winner. Dunn was forced into defense after Casey Short was stretchered off with a leg injury in the 76th minute

Dunn even had to fight her own natural attacking instincts. On one corner kick, she started to retreat a bit toward her goal though the Americans were trying to score.

“Story of my life, right?” she said at the time. “I just have to be prepared for whatever. I’ve been that type of player my whole career. It’s normal.”

Dunn is arguably the most versatile women’s soccer player on this planet. She has played every position but goalkeeper for the USA, which meets France in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals at Parc des Princes Friday. And she has no desire of taking up that position now.

“Absolutely not,” she said with a laugh about the possibility of putting on goalkeeper’s gloves. “What those keepers are able to is incredible. It’s not in my wheelhouse at all.”

A blessing or a curse?

Like it or not, Dunn has excelled on defense, midfield and forward, so that versatility can be considered a blessing or a curse.

“I think it’s a blessing, in all fairness,” said Paul Riley, who is Dunn’s coach on the National Women’s Soccer League champion North Carolina Courage. Dunn is the team’s playmaker.

“I think if she was playing in the 10, she wouldn’t play,” said Riley, who was (and still is) the director of football at the Albertson Soccer Club when Dunn played there for his wife Tracey for one of the club’s youth teams.

“If the coach likes Lindsey Horan better or Rose Lavelle better, but if you’re the best left back there is, you’re the left back. For my team, she’s not the best left back. I think I have a better left back. That’s obviously coaches’ choices. But I think, as a No. 10, she electric, she’s a game changer. She can change a game at a moment. We probably miss her a lot, probably more than any other player because she just creates moments that are special. It takes a certain player.

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Crystal Dunn (center) trains with Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press. (Michael Chow – USA TODAY Sports)

“She scores loads of goals for us. Some are opportunistic, some of them are just brilliant plays by her. She can make her own chances by dribbling. She can create chances by passing. She’s technically gifted enough. she’s technical enough to pass the ball on the final ball to people. She doesn’t just score goals. She assists on goals. She’s just a production machine, a valuable weapon to have at the World Cup, in case you have to push her forward or higher. You put her on the left wing and you have four up front and the left two mids are chasing the game.”

So, the 26-year-old Dunn has had the make the transition from an attacking player to a defending one who takes the offensive when the moment is right.

“It’s not easy in any way,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes on in my head before camp if I’m playing a different position that I have been playing. I just try to keep it simple. I don’t overthink. In training when I’m at a different position, when I’m receiving the ball I always know where I want to go. I know my players around me. At the end of the day it’s just soccer. I try to keep it as simple as possible and just try to be at my best.

“Playing outside back, I’ve dibbled and dabbled there, obviously and I have a good gist on what is expected of me. There are definitely times in games where, that I’m like, ‘Ooof, I’m a little unsure of what to do in this situation.’ But you know comes down to teammates who will help and support me. They know I’m not always going to have the answers and make the right decisions on the field. Them having my back makes it a lot easier.”

When asked what her preferred position was, Dunn did not have to take long to say what spot that was.

“I definitely think I’m attacking player,” she said. “Where specifically in the attack, it’s hard to narrow down but I do think if I had to pick a position, it would be a wide forward, a wide midfielder. This year I did actually play the 10, which was very much central [and] I got a good feel for that. It also helps who I’m playing with. My teammates literally help and put me in the best position to succeed, then every position is fun.”

Which position Dunn is best suited for has been an ongoing debate for years. And by the way, she has 24 goals in 89 international appearances.

“I go through phases where I hate how versatile I am,” she said, “and I go through those phases where I love it. I feel it makes me so unique and it makes me feel like I’m just in a different category. The more I embrace it and the more I open my heart knowing that this makes me special, makes me unique, and it’s awesome. That’s when I’m at my best. I think when I fight it I’m angry that I have to play so many positions. That’s when I am not bought in and I get upset and I don’t probably play at my best. So, going forward, I’m just embracing it and that’s who I am.”

The Anson factor

When Dunn attended the University of North Carolina, legendary head coach Anson Dorrance originally used the Long Island as a defender. But after seeing what a dynamo she was, he changed his mind.

“When I saw her as a youth player, playing for Albertson, she was an outside winger up front,” he said. “She was in the 11 or 7 [spot]. Then all of a sudden I was seeing with the youth national teams, and I think in the first youth World Cup she played in, she was actually a center back and I think she was playing for Jill Ellis [the current U.S. women’s national coach] in that stretch. She comes to UNC because I had seen her as the youth national team level as a center back, I threw her to center back immediately in the first part of her freshman year. She easily won the start as a center back.”

Then Dorrance saw the qualities that made Dunn such a special player.

“The qualities that make her special is that she can beat anyone off the dribble. I mean anyone off the dribble,” he said. “And I am thinking, what a waste of this brilliant dribbler as a center back. She was very good defensively. She could stop people, but then she would get the ball, her first instinct would be to play make. It would be to start penetrating off the dribble. She had no trouble carving all the forwards she was playing against.

“So, I was thinking this was ridiculous: why have this kid who is so good off the dribble playing as a center back? That’s when we started moving her around, playing midfield in a 3-4-3, up front in a 3-4-3 and then finally, in her junior and senior year as a 10 and as a 10 she was phenomenal. It wasn’t like she wasn’t brilliant passer, because no one could stop her off the dribble. Almost every time she got the ball she would beat the other team’s six and all of a sudden, we had numbers up somewhere. She was devastating for us at the 10.”

In 2012, Dunn won her second Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year award and MAC Hermann Trophy honors while helping the Tar Heels to In 2013, she captured ACC offensive player of the year before winning the MAC Hermann Trophy as the best women’s college soccer player.

So close, yet so far

Four years ago, Dunn just missed making the U.S. squad for the World Cup in Canada. She was an alternate and wound up watching the U.S. games and triumph on TV.

Whatever frustrations and emotions Dunn had, she took it out on the rest of the NWSL, by not only winning the goal-scoring title, but MVP honors as well as a member of the Washington Spirit.

Dunn earned a spot on the 2016 Olympic team that was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Sweden. Now, she has an opportunity to win a world championship.

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Crystal Dunn: “If I focus on the short-term goals, then the long-term goals are going to be in my favor.” (Michael Chow – USA TODAY Sports)

“I’m super determined,” she said. “I think four years ago I was a completely different person and player. The way I kind of view life and viewed the game was so different. I think I came full circle. I have another opportunity to fight for a spot on this World Cup roster. I’m just a more confident player. I know who I am as a player and it kind of translates on the field. This time around I am way more relaxed, I would say. I am going in every day just wanting to work hard and get better. If I focus on the short-term goals, then the long-term goals are going to be in my favor.”

She has played a vital role for the Courage, whether it has been threading passes to teammates or scoring goals. Last year year the Courage rolled to the title, losing but once.

“She has become a much better player technically and tactically,” Riley said. “She creates, she scores. She produces. At left back she’s good, too. She gets forward, creates. Great crosser of the ball with both feet. Her left foot is much better today than back then, I’ll tell you that. She’s really, really developed. She’s had her ups and downs, not getting picked for the next World Cup. She used all her positive energy. I respect that. She’s a great footballer. Great personality in the locker room, too. She helps the team out a lot. She’s just not one of those players who shows up now and then. She shows up every week. I think consistency is another thing that people don’t notice. She’s very consistent in her play, which not always the case.”

Giving soccer some more exposure

Off the field, Dunn is quite proud for posing for the Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue and for ESPN’s Body Issue. In both magazines, women can be scantily clad or have nothing on at all.

Dunn had no problem. She is proud of her 5-2 body.

“That was an incredible experience,” she said. “I did the ESPN Body Issue, which is obviously, you’re like naked. Then all of a sudden, Sports Illustrated, you’re in a bathing suit, at least with little. To me, that was more thrilling in a sense that than the ESPN Body shoot. I just think seeing us in a different light always raises different eyebrows. ”Oh, you’re a soccer player. What are you doing posing on a beach and having fun?’ What is really important, and I want people to realize that we’re more than just an athlete.

“I always step off the field knowing that it’s ok to leave soccer behind and kind of focus on other aspects of your life. I’m a wife, a sister, a daughter. I am not just this athlete people see us as. Being part of the Sports Illustrated shoot was just a way to express that we’re so much more than what people think we are.

“My husband nearly had a heart attack. But I told him, ‘Listen this is a special moment. It’s not every day are you asked to be in Sports Illustrated, so he obviously was very supportive.”

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Crystal Dunn enjoys a little down time with her teammates at the Reims Stadium. (Michael Chow – USA TODAY Sports)

Her husband is Pierre Soubier, head trainer for the Portland Thorns (NWSL) and a native of Aurignac, France. The couple were married on Long Island last December.

“My in-laws, they’re French and they want the women’s side to do well. But obviously I’m a part of the family now and they’re rooting for me and they want me to go all the way,” Dunn told USA TODAY last month. “They’ve said it’s going to be quite tough if we play France. I told them to wear only one jersey and I hope it’s the U.S. jersey.”

On Thursday, Soubier posted on Twitter:

Another body to help carry this @ussoccer_wnt to the Cup! @crysdunn_19 I’m on my way! 🌹✈️🇫🇷… Let’s Go 🇺🇸 🇺🇸🇺🇸 @ Portland International Airport

How it began

In what sounds like a familiar story about how many players started their journey in the sport, Dunn began playing soccer with the Rockville Centre Soccer Club when she was four-years-old.

“My parents knew nothing about soccer,” she said. “They just felt I had a lot of energy and told me to go run around and run it off. But I am so fortunate to continue playing this sport. Anyone who picks up a soccer ball, regardless of what skill set you’re at, it’s such a fun sport to kick around with your friends and you’re never going to regret that decision.”

When it came time for travel soccer in the Long Island Junior Soccer League, Dunn performed with the Rockville Centre Power from Under-10 through U-13, winning an Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association State Cup championship. She moved into the RVC Tornadoes from U-13 through U-15 before joining the Albertson Fury as a U-15 player. She was a standout there winning several State Cups title before moving on to college.

“Being part of a good club, it allowed me to go to really top tournaments, allowed me to be seen by top colleges, obviously got my chance to go to UNC,” Dunn said. “That’s ultimately what youth soccer does for you. It opens up the window for coaches to see you and recruit you.”

They also had an opportunity to see Dunn play and dominate as a member of the South Side High School squad in Rockville Centre. She was the center piece of the team, leading it to New York State titles in 2006, 2007 and 2009. In the 2009 championship game, she had recorded a hat-trick in the opening 20 minutes, finishing with four goals. She was named the Newsday Long Island player of the year, Nassau County player of the year, BigAppleSoccer.com youth soccer player of the year and the Mike Clark Award as the best all-around athlete in Nassau County.

And if you were wondering why South Side did not win state honors in 2008, Dunn had a pretty decent excuse. She missed the entire season due to youth national team commitments that fall. Playing outside back, Dunn and the U.S. lost to North Korea in the U-17 World Cup final in New Zealand.

Unlike many of her USWNT teammates, Dunn admitted she did not see the USA defeat China via penalty kicks to win the 1999 World Cup. But that certainly did not deter her enthusiasm for the sport.

“I didn’t watch the game, so I did not see it actually live,” she said. “But after all the headlines, all the pictures, just them all in the news, I just thought to myself, women’s soccer has definitely taken a turn. It’s a pivotal moment for the game.”

The Long Island connection

Dunn is one of two Long Islanders on the first, which is a World Cup first. She has joined Northport, N.Y. native and midfielder Allie Long, another product of the Albertson SC, on the squad.

“Honestly, it’s so great,” she said. “Me and Allie always talk about how great it is to be from New York. It’s such a special place. We always tell me people that if you can survive in New York, you can survive anything. So, us traveling all over the place, we always feel … we can survive this.”

She then laughed.

Dunn comes off as a bubbly personality, always smiling even when a tough question or two is thrown her way. But don’t let that fool you. Underneath that shell is one tough New Yorker.

“New Yorkers have that mindset, we are grinders, we can survive anything,” she said. “That’s what helped me when I was going away to college. I was in places without my parents. I felt I was built to survive anything. They’re asking kids at 12 years of age to fly out of the country by themselves. I think it’s really important to have a set guideline of knowing who you are. New York has shaped that in me and I always think I bring New York everywhere I go.”

Now, Crystal Dunn would love to bring the Women’s World Cup trophy home to New York and the United States.