PORTLAND – Growing up, Crystal Dunn would look around at all the other girls playing soccer and wonder if she belonged.
In a sport that is still overwhelmingly white in the United States, there was no one who looked like Dunn. No one encouraging her to become more technical rather than making stereotypical assumptions about her speed and athleticism.
“Black women, especially, us existing in spaces that were not necessarily created for them” is not easy, Dunn said. “I do think women as a whole, we are a little bit reserved in regards to boasting and sharing our accolades and talking about it in the media. But I think Black women have a whole other level of cautiousness regarding that, because we often do feel like we are just happy to be here.
NEVER MISS A MEDAL:Subscribe to our Olympics newsletter
“I think it’s easy for me to just get caught up in, `Oh, I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy to be here.’ And I’m like, no, no, no, no, I’m not here to survive. I’m here to thrive in this environment,” she added. “I’m trying to let people know that I’m not just here to be in the background. I’m here to be spotlighted. I’m here to, you know, really make a big splash.”
It’s the players who score goals who often get the most attention and appreciation in soccer, and it’s no different with the U.S. women’s team, whose biggest stars are Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd. But that does a disservice to Dunn, who is, in many ways, the most valuable and skilled player on the team.
A natural midfielder, she plays out of position as the USWNT’s left back. (More on this in a bit.) She is one of the team’s glue women, friendly with everyone regardless of position, age or race. And she has become increasingly vocal and visible in the fight for equality, both for women and people of color.
“Her personality is something incredibly unique and such a big part of this team,” said defender Tierna Davidson, at 22 the youngest player on both the World Cup and Tokyo teams. “She has the ability to lift people up and to encourage people and support people in a way I’ve seen rarely from other players.
“She is a very, very special player, and a very important cog in this machine that we have here.”
Left back who defends, breaks down teams on the attack
Dunn’s natural position, the one where she gets her “most joy,” is attacking midfielder, and it’s where she plays with the Portland Thorns in the NWSL. But the U.S. women have an abundance of riches at midfield, leaving players home who would be starters for any other country.
What the Americans don’t have is a multitude of options at left back.
It’s a challenging position, the last line of defense when an opponent’s best offensive weapon comes streaking up the sideline. There is little backup, the closest reinforcement 10 to 15 yards away, and the sideline leaves limited room to maneuver.
It requires a player with superior technical skills, as well as the ability to react and adapt immediately. The way the U.S. women play, it also requires someone who can be part of the offense. There is no one other than Dunn who can do that.
Not at her level, at least.
“She’s a super good defender, but also can break teams down on the attacking side. It’s a quality that not many players in the world have, whether it’s in the female or the male game,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said.
“Not many players have the ability to change personalities and the way they play as they move up the field. Crystal has the ability to literally change her profile three times in one attack,” Andonovski said. “She starts in the buildup as a left fullback, and then changes her personality or profile and plays as a midfielder as we’re moving up. And then we’ll see her ending up in (one-on-one) action finishing with a cross or a shot, which is a forward profile.
“That’s something that makes her special, and makes her one of the best in the world.”
So Dunn is “stuck.” While she takes Andonovski and former coach Jill Ellis’ faith in her abilities as a compliment, and will play wherever the U.S. women need her if that’s what it takes to win a World Cup or Olympic gold, playing left back is never going to be her preference.
“We’re approaching an Olympics. Of course my focus is be the best left back that you could possibly be,” Dunn said. “But sometimes I do feel like I’m losing a sense of myself or I’m giving up my joy to be a part of something bigger.”
Here’s why representation matters
Even more irksome is the suggestion that Dunn is only playing left back because she’s “fast,” or “athletic,” words that have become default descriptions for the abilities of Black athletes.
Of course Dunn is athletic; you don’t become a regular with the U.S. women if you’re not. She is fast, as are her teammates. Again, you don’t spend multiple years with the four-time World Cup champions if you can’t keep up.
But Dunn is also exceptional technically, possessing both the skill, intellect and vision necessary to play three different positions at a world-class level. In the quarterfinal match against France in the 2019 World Cup, Dunn effectively shut down Kadidiatou Diani, who had been so dangerous in creating chances both for herself and her teammates.
“Her tactical and technical ability is beyond me,” Davidson said. “It’s so difficult to play one position as a professional, let alone at this level. But to be good enough to play in any position at this level is absolutely unheard of.
“It’s one thing to know how to play a position, and another to actually be able to play the position,” Davidson added. “Her understanding of the game, her ability to read the game and go with the flow of the game is amazing.”
The minimizing of Dunn’s abilities is yet another stereotype that Black athletes endure. In the past, Dunn might have corrected it in the moment, or simply let her play speak for her.
But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Dunn posted a heartfelt Instagram post urging coaches and media members not to put Black players in boxes, and challenging them to look at how those stereotypes have marginalized athletes of color.
“That’s the narrative that I’m trying to create, I’m trying to change,” Dunn said. “Because often those stereotypes are placed on Black athletes. And me, being a Black athlete, obviously. Would you be saying this if it was a white person that could play multiple positions? Or would you credit their cognitive abilities or say that they’re very intelligent on the ball and that’s why they can do that?”
While Dunn is speaking from her own experience, she’s also driven to speak out on behalf of all those who can’t.
Her role on the USWNT, which has rock-star status in addition to those four World Cup titles, gives Dunn a platform and an opportunity to advocate for Black people. Young Black soccer players, in particular.
She is a co-founder of the Black Women’s Players Collective, which supports Black players and was central to the NWSL and USWNT’s demonstrations for equality that began last summer and are ongoing. She is challenging fans and sponsors to think about why the “face” of the USWNT has always been a white player, even as the game grows more diverse. She is trying to help create space for other Black women in the game to take on larger roles, be they as coaches, general managers, even owners.
Most of all, Dunn, 29, wants to make sure all those other little girls and young women who look around and wonder if they belong to know that they most certainly do.
“Representation is so important. And I feel like if I had had more soccer players that looked like me growing up, I wouldn’t have had the struggles that I faced at a younger age going into the national team,” Dunn said.
“I never thought about it before really, going into coaching, but it might be my duty to actually test it out and see if I like it,” Dunn added. “More and more of us do need to be involved well after we’re done playing. I never had a Black coach before. And I think if I could be a Black coach to a young Black player, that could be life-changing. That can be so inspiring and comforting for them.
“So I think it’s on my radar.”
First, though, there is an Olympic gold medal to win.
‘I’m done shying away from the spotlight’
No reigning World Cup champion has won an Olympic title since soccer was added to the Summer Games program in 1996. With only a year between the two events, the turnaround leaves little time to recover from the intensity of one tournament and prepare for the grueling physical and psychological demands of another.
But the year’s postponement of the Tokyo Olympics because of the COVID-19 pandemic has removed that challenge.
“I’m always so excited to see what this team can do,” Dunn said “I’ve been a part of the national team for nine years now, and every year I’m like, `We gotta keep moving. We gotta keep growing. We can’t just rely and rest on our laurels.’
“It’s incredible that this team has that ability to adapt.”
And Dunn has a big role to play in that, on and off the field.
“I think it took me a while to really find myself, find my voice,” she said. “Now what I’m finding is I am more confident in who I am as a player, and it’s time that I own that confidence and use it in a very positive way.
“I think when 2020 hit, I was like, `I’m done shying away from the spotlight,’” Dunn said. “I think I’ve earned the right to be able to boast a little bit about myself, all that I’ve been able to accomplish in this sport, and say, `You know what? You’re doing things right. You’re, you’re an OK player.’
“(I also want) to let people know that Black women exist in this sport. You know, we’re not here to just survive. I’m not here to just be in the shadows of white players. I’m here to compete and be at my best.”