Crystal Dunn's USWNT Success Built on Versatility
October 21, 2016
WITH NEARLY THREE YEARS until the next major international tournament—the 2019 World Cup in France—American head coach Jill Ellis has decided the time is now to begin a series of widespread changes to her squad.
First, she took the unusual step of calling in 11 new players to this month’s training camp, while leaving 10 of her experienced Olympic veterans at home. Then, on Wednesday night, in the first of two friendlies against Switzerland, Ellis unveiled a radical formation shift, sending out her team in a newfangled 3-5-2.
For 24-year-old Crystal Dunn, now a de facto veteran with her 42 caps on a roster of newbies, the changes have been positive. Speaking to American Soccer Now ahead of Sunday’s second match against the Swiss (1:45pm ET, Fox Sports1), Dunn said the new 3-5-2 formation gives the U.S. some much-needed tactical flexibility.
“I enjoyed it. It’s good for us to have multiple formations,” she explained. “We never know what a team’s going to throw at us. We can go in thinking they’re going to play one way and they give us something completely different, so it’s important for us to be prepared.
“Going forward, Jill is definitely trying to put as many clubs in our golf bag as we can possibly have so we can whip [that club] out at any time.”
In Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Switzerland, five players (Andi Sullivan, Casey Short, Lynn Williams, Abby Dahlkemper, and Ashley Hatch) made their debuts for the Americans. Dunn observed that the new players showed a surprising maturity in how they handled the challenge of their first caps and the new formation.
“All those that got on the field did really well and it’s not an easy environment,” said Dunn. “We played a completely different formation than we’re used to. They stepped into an environment that some of the veterans weren’t even prepared for, necessarily.
“Lynn [Williams] with her first goal and first cap was incredible. She came on and lit a match and that was awesome for her. Casey Short, playing 90 minutes, was awesome. [She’s] super strong and technical, and did a lot that was asked of her. Abby [Dahlkemper] coming in. Andi Sullivan was super solid. It was great having them on the field.”
Traditionally, roster turnover for the U.S. is rare and first call-ups are hard-won. But with an aging roster and nearly three full years to experiment, Ellis has decided to embrace change. That rebalancing has left Dunn—still a youngster—as one of team’s more experienced players.
“Some people who are well under 100 caps are feeling like veterans,” acknowledged the New York native. “For me, and a couple of other girls who are around 50 caps—that seems like a lot—but [in comparison] there are girls here who don’t have a cap, or now have one cap.”
Despite the number of fresh faces, Dunn hasn’t changed her leadership approach during this camp, and said her role is to help integrate the rookie players and welcome them into the new environment.
“I’m the same person I always am. I try to be a leader in my own way,” insisted Dunn. “I’m not a Carli Lloyd but I do feel like I have a voice on the field. I give instruction when needed. It is a bit of a different role when there aren’t so many players with so many caps ahead of me, but I don’t think anyone went into this camp thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to change my role.’
Dunn came into this camp off a heartbreaking loss in the National Women’s Soccer League final, in which her Washington Spirit side gave up an equalizing goal to the Western New York Flash in the 124th minute of extra time two weeks ago in Houston. The Flash went on to win in penalties, but Dunn still looks at this season with Washington as a success and credits the team’s closeness with their ability to make the team’s first league final.
“We were such a tight-knit team and that really goes a long way,” said Dunn. “People don’t understand when you actually respect your teammates, not just as players, but as people, you’ll basically do anything for them. That’s what drove us to our success this year.”
Dunn, who won the NWSL MVP award in 2015, added that the future for the league is bright.
“The league has been incredible. Anyone who knows my story knows that last year, I basically was only given the NWSL platform and that’s exactly what I needed—that spotlight,” noted Dunn. “It provided me with a stage to perform and get myself out there and allow people to see who I was as a player. I’m just so honored that there’s a league still around.
“There’s always been talk from year to year, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen next year?’ I don’t think any of those talks are actually being had anymore. It’s all about what new things are going to be brought to the league. We’re not concerned anymore about it folding. We’re on the up right now and, for me, it’s incredible.”
Throughout her career, Dunn has played a variety of roles, to the extent that her tactical flexibility almost defies believability. In 2012, playing as a right back, she helped lead the U.S. U-20’s to a World Cup title and provided the game-winning assist in the team’s 1-0 win over Germany in the final.
Returning to the University of North Carolina after the win—where she starred as both an attacking midfielder and center back—Dunn helped lead the Tar Heels to a national championship while winning All-American honors and the Hermann Trophy for herself.
In college, Dunn says the variety of roles frustrated her: “I was so upset with Anson [Dorrance] when he said [at UNC], ‘I need you to play center back.’ I thought, ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean?’ It probably took me the whole four years I was in college to realize it was actually a blessing in disguise.”
When Tom Sermanni called her into the senior national team a few months after winning the 2012 NCAA title, Dunn began to see action as a left back before then transitioning into roles as a winger and forward for the Washington Spirit—where she won the NWSL Golden Boot in 2015, scoring 15 goals in 20 games.
Dunn admitted the constant positional switching has caused frustration at times, but has also made her a more complete player.
“The thing about me—I’ve been all over the field,” said Dunn. “Yes, I’d love to work on my shooting, work on my passing. But for a player like me, I couldn’t tell you where I’m going to play on the field. On the national team, I started off as a right and left back, now playing a little bit of center mid, a little bit of outside mid, a little bit up top. For me, the day that I’m ready to hang up the boots, I’m looking back and saying, ‘I was the most complete player I could possibly be.’
“For me, my next stage is just getting better in every single area and being ready for any position that is needed of me because it’s not easy,” she added. “People have played forward their whole life and they’ve been a goal scorer their whole life. As much as I’d love that to be me, I haven’t been a forward my whole life. I’m competing with people who live, breathe, and die scoring goals. I can be a top goal-scorer, obviously, but there are other things that I need to work on as well. It’s about being an overall soccer player.”
On Wednesday, Dunn saw yet another role for the U.S., when Ellis dropped her into the No. 10 role in the second half against Switzerland. While not a classic playmaker, Dunn’s pace, power, and willingness to mix it up immediately caused the Swiss defense problems.
Dunn said she enjoyed playing the No. 10 position and is willing to embrace whatever role she is given.
“I’ve had some experience playing there—not a ton. I’m definitely still learning where my movements should be, my positioning, things like that. I loved it. I had a ball in that game.
“I love playing the 10 and wherever I’m thrown—I’m like, let’s go.”
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.