In the first minute of the second half of the Spirit’s match last Saturday, Crystal Dunn scored her first NWSL goal. If you were in the throng of people at the Maryland Soccerplex waiting on your funnel cakes or ice cream cones, you may have missed it. It happened that fast.
At midfield, Dunn stole the ball from Kansas City’s Jen Buczkowski and tore off towards goal. She then laid the ball off to Laura del Rio and continued her run, putting herself in the perfect position to knock in del Rio’s pass and helping seal a 3-1 win over the defending NWSL champions.
The goal was rather befitting of the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014, scored through a combination of speed, athleticism and hustle. Those three adjectives would certainly be near the top of anyone’s list of words to describe the North Carolina product’s play.
Dunn’s first goal as a professional came just a week after learning she hadn’t made the final U.S. roster for this summer’s World Cup. U.S. coach Jill Ellis was at the SoccerPlex on Saturday and on Sunday, Dunn drew attention for a tweet featuring emojis that some interpreted as a response to Ellis. Dunn says it was nothing of the sort
“I tweeted that the day after the game and it had nothing do with the U.S. women’s national team, or I guess I heard rumors that it was about me throwing disses at Jill or something — that’s just certainly untrue,” Dunn said. “I would never in any way disrespect the women’s national team or any coaches or anything of that sort. That tweet simply meant I’m feeling good and I’m getting this vibe. That’s completely it. Maybe I should have just wrote that to clarify but other than that, that is all that tweet meant.”
Dunn admitted she shed some tears since hearing the news of being left off the roster, but now she’s looking forward to what’s ahead of her this season with Washington. In addition to looking forward, she’s also playing forward.
“That moment was amazing for me because I feel like I’m finally gaining confidence,” Dunn said Wednesday. “I’m owning a new role. Playing up top is definitely new for me.”
Playing up top might be new for Dunn but playing different positions certainly isn’t. She’s the only player to have earned both defensive player of the year and offensive player of the year awards in the ACC, the most competitive conference in collegiate soccer.
In fact, when Dunn was taken first overall in last year’s draft, the question wasn’t whether she’d make an impact at the next level, but where on the field she’d make the biggest impact. More than a year later, the jury is still out on that dilemma.
In 2014, she played primarily as a right back for the Spirit, helping to shore up a shaky backline, but she also saw time just about everywhere else but goalkeeper. In a press conference discussing the U.S. World Cup roster, Ellis said she looked at Dunn in positions other than right back.
“It’s challenging but I think it’s also what separates me from a lot of people,” Dunn said about playing different positions. “I can get thrown pretty much everywhere and I feel pretty confident going in. I think that’s a great quality to have but I do feel like sometimes I fall into the expression, ‘jack of all trades but master of none.’ I’m still finding myself as a player. I think down the road, I’m definitely going to figure it out.”
When asked if there’s a position she prefers or thinks is her best, Dunn gave a fairly general answer.
“I would say I’m very attacking minded. I think if anything that is where I see myself whether it’s outside mid, center mid or now I’m trying to get the hang of playing up top, but I’m very attacking minded. I definitely look to go there first and try to create something before stopping and trying to be on the backline.”
Washington head coach Mark Parsons is planning on using Dunn further up the field this year. The Spirit could certainly use some offensive reinforcement after trading Jodie Taylor to Portland and losing Diana Matheson to an ACL injury.
After Saturday’s game, Parsons talked about what Dunn brings to the lineup and his thoughts about her exclusion from the World Cup roster.
“She can change games in split seconds,” Parsons said. “She helps save games in split seconds. Her pace, energy, fight, desire going forward, her quality 1-v-1 dribbling, creativity. Tonight, she gives us a different dimension…I don’t understand how she doesn’t go (to the World Cup). I think she’s a game-changer going forward and a game-changer going back and every team, every country needs that.”
Dunn certainly played the role of game-changer on Saturday. In addition to scoring the game-winner, she was fouled just outside the penalty area to set up Christine Nairn’s superbly taken free kick for the team’s third goal. If Dunn continues to play the way she did Saturday, the other NWSL teams may end up wishing she was in Canada.
It’s not just desire that Dunn brings to the playing field that makes her valuable to the Spirit. On Saturday, Nairn talked about the important role Dunn plays in the team’s dynamics.
“She’s the person who gets us up in the locker room,” Nairn said, “She’s the one who wants to lead us out and get everyone on the same page, smiling and laughing. So she brings that spirit onto the field and plays with such energy.”
“I know in the locker room everyone has their own way of getting pumped up,” Dunn said. “For me, it’s dancing around, making sure that everyone remembers that this is a fun game. Despite disappointing moments, despite losses, at the end of day, you’re playing with some of your best friends. You’re growing as a person. You’re growing as a player.”
Missing the World Cup means Dunn will have the opportunity play with the Spirit for a full season and continue to grow as a player. That’s something the young footballer is embracing after a year laden with injuries, including a high ankle sprain, hamstring strain and MCL sprain that cost her a spot on the World Cup qualifying roster.
“Being injured for most of 2014 did a lot to me physically and mentally and I think this is the year I just get to be free,” she admitted. “I get to kind of figure it out and kind of start from the beginning and really see where I can take the game.”
Fittingly, as Dunn continues her journey of self-discovery, the Spirit’s next game at Sky Blue will take the Long Island native back close to where it all began for her as a youth player.
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