Crystal Dunn: ‘As a black woman I always felt I had to go above and beyond to be noticed’

Four years after watching her USA team-mates hoist the World Cup from a sports bar, the dynamic 26-year-old left back is out to win one for herself while busting stereotypes about black footballers

Crystal Dunn talks a lot about what she calls the above and beyond stuff. Whether its stepping in to play whatever position is required on the day, offering her trademark levity to the sometimes high-strung atmosphere of training with the world champions or challenging stereotypes about black players in a sport disproportionately played in America by upper-middle class white kids, the ebullient 26-year-old from Long Island is always willing to do the little extra with her infectious smile.

A natural forward whos spent a large chunk of her career unnerving defenders with her explosive acceleration, slashing cuts and preternatural sense of positioning, Dunn will be deployed as a left back when the United States open their World Cup title defense on Tuesday in the north-eastern French city of Reims against Thailand and the debutant to the sports biggest stage is relishing the challenge ahead.

Im really excited to compete against top forwards, Dunn says. As an attacking-minded player I have the chance to add something new to the outside back role and show people it really doesnt matter where you are on the pitch, you can impact the game anywhere.

The re-assignment might elicit stage fright among her less adaptable colleagues but its old hat for Dunn, whos scored 24 goals in 84 international appearances while playing every position except center back, defensive midfielder and goalkeeper for the top-ranked American squad. Her versatility is no accident, but a product of years of training aimed toward busting preconceptions about players who look like her.

As a black woman I always felt growing up I had to do above and beyond stuff to be noticed, to feel like I could hang with everybody else, she says. I tried to implement so many different things in my game so that Im not just known for my speed. Its a stereotype that black players are just really fast, but at the end of day I want to be skilled, I want to be technical, I want to have vision and thats what Ive always tried to promote in my game: not relying on one thing but just being able to outwork players in so many different ways.

Dunn appeared bound for her World Cup debut four years ago, having led the University of North Carolina to a national championship as an attacking midfielder and featured on the U-17, U-18 and U-20 national sides before breaking in with the senior team in 2013. But her struggles in adapting to a fullback vacancy necessitated by a team-mates injury left her among the last players cut from Jill Elliss squad for Canada. Instead, she watched from a jam-packed sports bar in the nations capital with oscillating emotions as the United States hoisted the trophy before a record domestic TV audience.

Dunn has played every position except center back, defensive midfielder and goalkeeper for the United States. Photograph: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Rather than sulk, Dunn took out her disappointment on the back lines of the National Womens Soccer League, pounding in 15 goals in 20 matches for the Washington Spirit and becoming the youngest ever player to win the leagues Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player awards. Her devastating speed and nose for the net prompted a move to Chelsea, where she found the back of the goal only 12 minutes into her first competitive appearance.

But as Dunn set her sights on re-establishing herself with the national team, she was compelled to return home after one season with the Blues. While US Soccer denies that players must suit up in the NWSL to be considered for international duty, theres a tacit understanding among the USA women that it is, shall we say, easier to be seen when playing close to home an unspoken decree that Dunn acknowledges diplomatically.

My time at Chelsea was incredible and I would go back in a heartbeat, Dunn says. But I do think its important for the coaches to have visibility and be able to see me play. Back in 2017, I wasnt starting a lot of games or playing that many minutes (for the US team). I had to make a really tough decision of either enjoy my life in London or come back and just be seen by the coaching staff, so I decided to do what I thought was best for me to have a key role on this national team. As a player you need to make whatever decision you think is best for your career.

Dunn returned stateside to join the NWSLs North Carolina Courage as a midfielder, helping the club to the league title as it set the circuit record for most goals in a season. The 5ft 1in Swiss army knife had also become as a regular in Elliss team, earning a place as a forward on the 2016 Olympic squad but since settling into the starting left back role for a group with an embarrassment of attacking riches thats been undermanned and occasionally patchy in the final third.

I just needed a coach to say youre valuable, Im trusting you and from there it was all about growing into it and investing in my own self, Dunn says of the shift. I didnt wait for the coaching staff to really direct me. What I needed to do it was all about me wanting to do above and beyond stuff for the team. Thats my hunger every single training is to always get better. Being a player that plays multiple positions, thats my mindset every single day because I dont have the luxury of just being really good at one thing.

Says Ellis: Shes the most versatile player Ive ever coached. Its not just her ability to play in different lines, its the quality with which she plays in different lines, which is quite extraordinary.

Dunn believes the sting of her 2015 snub made her a better player and team-mate as the United States look to become the only the second country to repeat as Womens World Cup champions following a shock quarter-final exit to Sweden at the Olympics.

Im a different person and a player than I was four years ago, Dunn says. I was always been known as a diverse player but I think now Ive just embraced it a little bit more. Ive had four years to really master being picked up, thrown into a different position on the field and I think four years ago I didnt really accept my role. I kind of crumbled under the feeling of: Oh, you want me to play a different position? I dont really think I can. I dont have the confidence in myself to do that. And I think that in theory is what got away from me. Fast forward four years where Im now Im a more complete player, a more confident player.

Dunn signed with Chelsea in January 2017, but was compelled to return to the United States to stay in the national team mix. Photograph: Chelsea Football Club/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

She adds: I also dont take soccer as seriously as I think a lot of people do where they they get so stressed about everything. I have fun in training every day and I try to be the light in the group if things get too tense. I try to remind people we play a sport for a living. Youre going to make mistakes. Four years ago, I used to crack under that feeling of if I made a bad pass my lifes over. Now Im like I know Im valuable, I know Im needed and thats my mentality.

Like most of her team-mates on the national side, Dunns journey was deeply informed by the United States dramatic World Cup win on home soil in 1999. Brandi Chastains primal scream following her shootout-clinching, sports bra-baring penalty against China in front of more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl represented an indelible moment in American sports, driving youth participation in girls soccer to untold heights and inspiring a new generation of athletes that have endowed the United States with one of the worlds deepest talent pools.

But the 99ers, for all their endurance in the national consciousness, were not an advertisement for diversity. The squad featured only one non-white player: longtime goalkeeper Briana Scurry. These days Dunn is one of five women of color on the squad along with Christen Press, Mallory Pugh, Jessica McDonald and Adrianna Franch.

Its no longer like: This is abnormal, Dunn says. I do think its growing. It can definitely be more diverse, but were headed in the right direction. I always try to be a good role model for those that do look like me because you know theres not a lot of us. So I always have to step on the field knowing that I have to lead by example and try to be my best person that I can be.

Obviously its my job to support all women and obviously Brandi Chastains moment raised so much awareness for the game. But how cool would it be if that was a black player? That is ultimately what I think could happen this World Cup. That being said Im not in this tournament to say I want that moment to be me, but I do think that it would change the landscape of the game and that its important that all types of people are represented in this World Cup. I think thats what we all fought for.

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