CARY, N.C. — North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley has a plan on how to use Crystal Dunn this season. He’s going to make sure she’s on the field … somewhere.
Dunn, who returned to the U.S. after playing one season in England for Chelsea, was acquired by the Courage in an offseason trade that sent Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith to Washington. She’s one of those rare players who can play anywhere. Riley plans to take advantage of her versatility.
Saturday, in a 1-0 Courage win over the Portland Thorns in the NWSL season-opener for both teams, Dunn played as a right midfielder in a tight, yet fluid 4-4-2 diamond.
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Next week when the Courage host Sky Blue, she could very well be playing a different position.
“I like her anywhere, as long as she’s on the field,” Riley said after the game. “She did a lot of defending for us tonight, getting the ball back and shadowing (Lindsay) Horan and (Meghan) Klingenberg on that left-hand side. People don’t give her credit for that part of her game, but I think she is very good at it.
“And offensively, you can see the other team back off a little when she gets the ball, like, ‘Oh, God no.’ It’s good for us to be able to put teams on their back foot like that.”
With the U.S. national team, Dunn has played forward, midfielder and defender. At Chelsea, she began as a striker and was moved to outside back later in the season. With the Washington Spirit as a rookie, she led the league in goals. As a freshman at the University of North Carolina, she led the Tar Heels in scoring and was the Atlantic Coast Conference Defender of the Year as a junior.
Youth, college, professional, national team, England, wherever Dunn has been, the “versatile” label was with her. She’s learned to embrace it by understanding that wherever she plays on the field, the approach never changes.
“I think what keeps me as sane as I can possibly be is just keeping the basics of the game the same,” she said. “It’s always about your first touch. It’s about preparing yourself for the ball. It’s about creating space on your own. It’s about being able to receive the ball and turn and face and play a good pass. The basics of the game are still there.”
One thing she will not be able to offer the Courage is height. Against the Thorns, the Courage midfield consisted of the 5-foot-1 Dunn, 5-foot-2 Debinha, and Denise O’Sullivan and McCall Zerboni, both 5-foot-4. Riley called it, “the smallest midfield I’ve ever seen.” The lack of height emphasized the absence of the injured Sam Mewis, who at 5-11 is a dominating presence.
Mewis, who injured her knee in November, is expected to start training this week. Riley indicated that when Mewis is able to return, Dunn’s spot on the field might change.
“We’d like to move Crystal higher,” he said. “When Sammy gets back in the lineup, that’s the plan.”
Dunn’s preference? She really doesn’t care.
“I like to be the player who can say, ‘Wherever you need me, I’m there and I’ll play my part to the best of my ability,’” she said. “Do I prefer to be put in one position for a season? Of course. But being diverse and being able to move around the pitch is something I feel I’ve been blessed with. I love the fact that I can play multiple positions. It’s kind of a thrill knowing that I can compete at a high level in a position I haven’t played my whole life.”
The flip side of versatility is being seen as a Jack-of-all-trades yet master of none. Over the course of her career, Dunn admits she’s been overlooked for roster spots because her versatility has created a situation where coaches are unaware of where exactly she is best. And she has never been able to spend enough time at one particular position to perfect it as others have.
“There are negative things, sure,” she said. “There are days when I think, ‘Man, I dedicated a lot of time to defending when I could’ve used that time to work on finishing or something.’”
Dunn, who had five training sessions with the Courage before the Portland game, called her first performance with her new team, “Not perfect.” The speed of play in the NWSL is higher than she experienced in England, she said.
“The great thing about Crystal is I feel like she’s been with me forever,” said Riley. “She’s settled in so well with the team. She’s very likable, and she’s humble. She fits in well with the culture of the group.
“Before the game, she said, ‘If I’m doing something wrong, just scream at me and I’ll try to do it better.’”
In her first week with the Courage, Dunn found the adjustments minor.
“This team makes it easy to fit in,” she said. “And playing for a team where everyone is putting in max effort is easy. You don’t have to be the best on that given day, you just have to put in the effort.”
Dunn’s history shows that she’ll be ready for anything Riley has planned for her as the Courage season progresses.
“I don’t flinch at all when I am told to play something different now,” Dunn said. “I’m kind of like, ‘All right. Let’s go!’ I just want to play. For me, any time I am on the field, it’s a joy. At the end of the day, it’s a fun game you get to play with amazing players.”
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