Crystal Dunn: The Shape-Shifter

Crystal Dunn: The Shape-Shifter

By June 4, 2019 Issue 15, USWNT

It can sometimes get confusing being Crystal Dunn. Is she a forward or a defender? A winger or wing back? A midfielder or center back? Blessed (or is it cursed?) with cutting-edge versatility, Dunn has become a Jill of all trades who is equally comfortable hurtling toward goal as she is stuffing opponents at the other end of the pitch.


“It isn’t easy playing multiple positions, but it does give you different perspectives you can use to your advantage,” says the 26-year-old Dunn. “As a defender, I can anticipate what a forward will do because I’ve been one. And vice versa.”

Given how quick, athletic, and intelligent she is, you can understand why coaches would be tempted to slot her in almost anywhere on the field. But then you see her up close, and it becomes less obvious.

Dunn is just a headband over five feet tall. Yet despite her diminutive stature, she has played an outsize role on every team she has graced over the years. Powerfully built, with a low center of gravity that helps her wriggle out of tight spaces, and possessed of muscular legs that catapult her over opponents a half-foot taller, she can handle herself in the clinches, as she showed in closing down Brazil’s Marta and England’s Lucy Bronze, two players who are used to having their own way with defenders.

“Fortunately for me, the ball is on the ground for most of the time,” she says, with a infectious smile that seems permanently affixed to her face. “But I’m also strong and feisty, and whoever goes up against me for a high ball is going to find out that size really doesn’t matter.”

88_15_Crystal_2It certainly was of little concern to the u20 Women’s World Cup coach who seven years ago had the inspired idea of transforming Dunn from a prolific goal scorer into a marauding wing back. That coach’s name? Jill Ellis.

The British-born Ellis, who now coaches Dunn on the 2019 World Cup team, is long on pragmatism and short on sentimentality. (Just ask the marginalized superstars Wambach and Lloyd.)  Her team stacked with elite attacking talent, Ellis looked to strengthen a backline lacking pace and panache on the left flank. That’s not to say the U.S. coach handed Dunn the position. “Soul-crushing” is how she describes the feeling of being the last player cut by Ellis from the 2015 World Cup roster. “I had two choices then,” she recalls. “To feel sorry for myself or to work my butt off to show Jill I belong on the team. It’s still mind-boggling to me that in the year I was cut from the World Cup roster I ended up scoring 15 goals in the NWSL and being voted MVP.”

For Ellis, though, it was less about Dunn’s goal-scoring prowess than it was about her can-do gutsiness in the face of a potential career-shredding disappointment. She welcomed her back to the national team, albeit as a defender.

“I’m just happy to be back on the field and feel valued again,” says the ever-positive Dunn.

In addition to appreciating her perseverance and her lung-busting work ethic, Dunn’s teammates have come to value her for the cool-headed leadership she displays in another highly competitive area.

“I’m in charge of the pregame music,” she says proudly. “It’s a heavy responsibility because I have to cater to everybody’s tastes, which isn’t easy. If it was up to me, I’d play Drake all the time. But it’s nice to be acknowledged for my talent as a DJ.”

And you can be sure that should the U.S. women prevail in France, Crystal Dunn has her playlist ready. “Back to Back” by Drake, anyone?

This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of Eight by Eight. As an independent magazine it’s your support that enables us to continue bringing you the stories from around the football world. We hope you’ll buy the issue and join us.
Photographs by Joe Pugliese

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