Underestimated is a 10 part series exploring underestimated, tenacious and occasionally misunderstood players. Written by Zito Madu and brought to you by WeaselsFC.
Even though Crystal Dunn was playing as an advanced midfielder in the Courage’s knockout stage match against Sky Blue FC during their run in the NWSL Challenge Cup, sometimes she couldn’t help but to give in to her instincts as a natural forward. I believe it was in the 21st minute when the Courage had the ball, and Dunn was off-camera — nowhere near the middle of the field where she was usually operating from. Then the ball went out to the left wing, and there she was, the highest player forward, right on the shoulder of the last defender.
Those instincts helped her for her first shot in the game which came in the 27th minute. The Courage were moving the ball forward, and when Debinha held the ball in the center, Dunn was again peeling off to the left, off the last defender. She received the pass and managed an open shot on goal. Her only mistake in the action was that she got the ball stuck under her feet when she first controlled it. Because of that miscontrol, the shot was hurried and straight at the goalkeeper.
Dunn finally got her goal in the second half. Lynn Williams had come back to her own half to combine with her midfielders and defenders, and eventually was sent on the run from a ball down the right sideline. As Williams drove forward, Dunn stayed parallel to her on the inside. When Williams got into the box from that right side, Dunn was in the center and received Williams’ low and hard cross after a defender missed the interception. Correcting her earlier mistake, Dunn took a moment to shift her feet and re-position her body before driving the ball into the bottom right corner. The goal was a cliched and intelligent striker’s finish.
It’s difficult to write about Dunn, because she has so many identities. She has been asked to play so many different positions, that one would have to write several articles on her and each position that she plays. There is no one Crystal Dunn, even though it is the same person in all of those different spaces on the field. Her story inevitably comes back to the debate about what her best position is. Or rather, that her best position is clear according to her best qualities, so why does she keep having to play in other positions?
Dunn’s best qualities are her obvious goal scoring talent, her workrate, intelligence, creativity, and her dribbling ability. As a creative midfielder, most of those qualities are engaged and expressed, but probably not as much as they would be if she played in a forward position. What is absurd is when she is asked to play in a defensive position. The position in her adult career is usually left back when she’s with the national team, but even in college, she was being asked to play as a central defender. Her former college coach, Anson Dorrance, once talked about the positional journey that Dunn has gone through:
“When I saw her as a youth player, playing for Albertson, she was an outside winger up front. 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 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.
“The qualities that make her special is that she can beat anyone off the dribble. I mean anyone off the dribble. 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.”
The pivotal second character in the story of Dunn playing defense seems to be Jill Ellis. The woman who first played Dunn as a central defender in the youth national team, and then pushed her into the fullback position for the women’s national team. The only reason I would imagine that a coach could look at Dunn and see a defender is the assumption that her physical qualities would translate to that position, which is a reductive understanding of what positions demand and often a racialized perspective which reduces a player like Dunn, with her intelligence and creativity, to her physical qualities. It is a similar problem that’s happening with Midge Purce, who is an excellent forward, but for some bizarre reason is being relegated to defense.
The difficulty in the transition from forward and attacking midfielder to fullback was clear with Dunn, and even now, she’s still not a natural in that position. Especially with the conflict of her playing as a midfielder for the Courage. Two years ago, when asked about her preferred position, Dunn was clear that it was as an attacker, and the preference wasn’t surprising from watching her, because she tends to drift off into the high and wide areas:
“I definitely think I’m an attacking player. 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.”
Two years after Dunn declared that she was definitely an attacker, she softened on that stance, thinking of herself more as a “footballer” without any real position. This comment came while she was playing excellent soccer in the 2020 World Cup, as the only regular left back on the team, after Casey Short, a true left back, was left off the team:
“I think of myself as a footballer and am just trying to impact the game from a different angle of the field. I have watched all the outside backs and thought: ‘You know what? They are key players.’”
Later in the same interview, she referenced missing out on the 2015 World Cup as an event that changed her thinking:
“I can’t sit here and say four years ago everything would have been completely different. Who is to say I would have stepped on the field?”
This seems to be the root of why Dunn keeps playing defense. Not that she isn’t good at it, but that she’s too professional to reject the idea, and because she doesn’t want to sacrifice her place on the team. After missing out on a previous World Cup and now after winning one playing in that fullback position, she’s probably a permanent staple there on the national team.
As much as Dunn’s professional is commendable, and though her versatility is often praised, I wish she had the stereotypical diva attitude of a forward. I wish she stood her ground on what type of player that she was — an attacker. Even with the numerous oher talented forwards on the USWNT, she should have taken the challenge to claim a place against them all, because she has the ability to do so.
There are many Crystal Dunns, but the fullback Dunn is much inferior than Dunn when she’s allowed to be creative and a goal threat. Maybe inferior is the incorrect word, because she contributes greatly to the national team from that position, but the fullback Dunn is unnecessary. The national team has natural left backs, and playing in the back doesn’t give her the space to express her best qualities. She’s extremely limited and reduced.
It is a gift to the world of women’s soccer that Dunn gets to play as an attacker for her club. She’s such a fascinating player. One of the rare creative players who is also a hard worker. Someone who is an excellent passer, dribbler, and shooter. She’s both technically and physically gifted. Dunn is a near complete package as an attacking force, with an added bonus of defensive awareness and drive.
What makes her so exciting to me is the potential energy that she has on the field. Not just because she can explode forward at any time, but that when she has the ball, many things on the field suddenly become possible. She’s always a danger to her opponents and can make things happen for herself or her teammates whenever she decides. There’s not too many players in world soccer who have that energy. It’s a rare presence. It’s a quality which should never be suppressed, but instead harnessed and built around so that she can be at her best. Because Dunn at her best inevitably elevates the team around her.
NC Courage vs Sky Blue FC – Challenge Cup