Crystal Dunn: “I’ve always carried myself in a way where I knew that I was playing more for more than just myself.” (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the new Crystal Dunn.
Oh, as a player she is not much different than the one that entertained fans on the field for club and country.
Whether she is defending against some of the leading forwards on the planet as a left back for the U.S. women’s national team or causing mayhem as an attacking player in the National Women’s Soccer League, Rockville Centre, N.Y. native is still the same superior player as arguably the most versatile soccer player around.
Now, Dunn has taken the mantle that goes well beyond just scoring goals or stopping the opposition from celebrating one.
In a Jan. 25 interview with Forbes.com, the 28-year-old Dunn told writer Alana Glass she wanted to e a force of change for Black women soccer players.
“With my versatility and being one of the few Black women on the U.S. women’s national team, what I would have loved to see happen earlier, which I still hope will happen, is to be recognized as a face of women’s soccer,” she said during a video interview.
In a recent ZOOM interview with the media Saturday, Dunn elaborated on her thoughts as the team prepared for the SheBelieves Cup. The USA meets Canada in its first match in Orlando, Fla. Thursday at 7 p.m.
“First and foremost, I think ever since I’ve been on the national team, I’ve always been an advocate for black women in soccer,” she said. “For a long time when I first was a player on this team there weren’t a whole lot of us on the team. It was probably me and Christen Press and, and that was it. So, I’ve always felt passionate about that. I’ve always carried myself in a way where I knew that I was playing more for more than just myself.
“With that being said, I think every athlete knows that we are blessed with a with a platform that goes beyond just being the athlete. But I do think you have to look at your career and also look at where you are in your career to also gain confidence in order to speak out more. And on this team, I wasn’t always secure in my role. I wasn’t always confident. The first three years on the team I was up down up down kind of thing. I was a bench player I was not called into camps. My career wasn’t really stable. Over the years I’ve realized I believed in myself more. I felt like I was a consistent and valuable player on this team and I think with that confidence, made me feel like I do have that responsibility to carry others and not just look at myself as hey I’m just here to survive.
“I’m really here to represent Black women in this sport and I’m also here to shine light on the idea that even though this space was not necessarily always created for us, we can survive here and we can also be elite. So I think over the last couple years what I’ve really felt was the opportunity and the responsibility to shed light on that idea vs. just saying oh you know you know this sport is still predominantly white but that’s okay. No, I think my job here is to actually help those gain access to the sport and also want to be here and see themselves, hopefully, being on this platform.”
Dunn added that she said it only to open the doors for other women of color. It wasn’t about her being the face of women’s soccer in the USA, but to remind Black women they have a future in the sport.
“The comments I made in the article [were] more geared towards the idea that the face of women’s soccer I think today still is a white woman,” she said. “We have to get over the idea that that is the only face that should be the representation of the sport. It doesn’t even have to be me, but I think I am the one to push those boundaries.
“We need to change the narrative of only white women play the sport; only white people play this sport. And so, why I felt so strongly about the article I did is because everything that I do on the field every time I carry myself from the training field into games, it’s not even so much about my success but it’s the success of others coming after me. I want to be very clear that, whether it is me who was ever considered a face of women’s soccer, that really isn’t my goal, but my goal is for the black women coming after me to feel like they even have a chance to be the face of this sport.”
Dunn is well positioned to make a statement or two or three. She has a history of being a winner, individually and on a team.
A member of the 2019 Women’s World Cup championship team, she has played professional soccer for seven years. After capturing the 2012 NCAA Division I women’s crown with the University of North Carolina, she won two NWSL titles with the North Carolina Courage (2018, 2019). She will try for a third title with the Portland Thorns after an October trade to be closer to her husband, Pierre Soubrier, the NWSL team’s head trainer.
Dunn’s history with the USWNT is well known. Despite being one of the best attacking players in the NWSL, she was left off the 2015 squad that won the world championship. Instead of moping, the then Washington Spirit forward took out her frustrations on the rest of the league, capturing the scoring title and MVP honors.
When she finally secured an international spot on the team under head coach Jill Ellis, it wasn’t as in attacking role up front or in the midfield, but as a left back. Playing out of position and out of her creative personality, Dunn excelled there, quashing top forwards. Her most memorable battle was shutting down French forward Kadidiatou Diani.
When Vlatko Andonovski succeeded Dunn in 2019, he has kept the one-time South Side High School standout at left back, although Dunn did get an opportunity to play up front in a recent international friendly win over Colombia.
Dunn admitted she was more comfortable as an attacker. The numbers bear that out. She has collected 32 goals and 20 assists in 81 starts across 89 matches.
“The Forbes article I feel like was the coming out party of kind of like a new Crystal Dunn,” she said. “I think I’ve always given the very soft, answer of yeah I don’t like playing left back but I’m a team player. All of that is so true. At the end of day, I want to play whatever it was in my country. If that means playing as an outside back, then I’m game. But I think it’s also important that people realize what I deal with on a daily basis is very much different than most players. I transform to a different player Basically when I am in this environment because I know my role is different.
“And then when I go to club. I’m almost feeling like more myself playing freely, getting involved in the attack and just, expressing myself in the way that I’ve always thought was the way I should be expressing myself. What I really wanted to get out of that article was letting people know that there is a side to me that’s not always smiley, always dancing.
“I think it was just time to kind of like let that loose and let people understand that as much as I am proud to represent my country, be on this team right now, considering myself a starter but always competing to stay on the field and become in remain a starter. I think people need to know that I’ll do what it takes to be on the field, even if that means that I am not particularly happy inside. But I do think of the bigger picture and the bigger picture is winning an Olympic gold medal, wanting to be a part, and being impactful on the field and if that’s that left back then that’s a left back.”
Dunn felt that Andonovski has allowed the players to express themselves more on the pitch with “a lot of fluidity.”
“He really understands that a lot of us do play slightly different roles sometimes in club and with the national team and I think he’s allowed people to feel as free as possible in that role,” she said. “So for me, obviously being out there back I’m like, yeah get it. Got to defend but also like, I’m trying to get involved in that attack and I think he understands that. He’s been great at really letting me kind of feel the game out and getting involved as much as I need to. But then also understanding ultimately, I have to do what’s best for the team. If that’s staying connected to the backline and really just allowing the midfield in the frontline to do all the work offensively then, he understands that. I am more inclined to just letting the players do what they have to do.”
Given that she has earned 107 caps since making her debut in 2013, Dunn is one of the veterans on the squad. Dunn was reminded of that fact when a reporter asked her a question about what advice a veteran would give the younger players in USWNT camp. Only six teammates on the SheBelieves Cup roster have made more international appearances.
“One, it’s scary to consider myself a veteran player,” she replied. “So thank you for making me nervous about that now.”
Then Dunn turned serious and imparted some wisdom, having lived a rollercoaster ride at times.
“What I tell younger players is just really embrace the journey, because regardless of if you’re feeling good, feeling confident right now, your career is going to be long enough where you’re going to have ups and downs. I think the worst thing you can do is always think that you’re always going to be in the best form, always have great training sessions because at the end of the day, everyone knows there’s some off days there’s some off games. It’s about how you bounce back. It’s about staying committed to really preparing and being at your best.
“All the young players I think they definitely have a level of success and that’s obviously what got them called to this team but that isn’t necessarily what keeps you on this team. What keeps you on this team is being competitive, being accountable to your own game and investing in yourself. Everyone here I think leaves this environment and does all the things that they need to do when no one’s watching. And that’s what they need to continuously do day-in, day-out to prepare themselves for coming back in this environment and ultimately staying on this team for a while.”