Crystal Dunn: USA star has mastered adaptation in her career - Sports Illustrated

Crystal Dunn and the Art of Adaptation

Throughout her career, the U.S. women's national team and NWSL star has constantly rolled with the punches and evolved, emerging with a successful and more fulfilling outcome.
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Crystal Dunn was in search of a pet sitter. In any other situation, it would have been easy to find someone to watch her beloved animals while she left her home in Portland, Ore., to begin training in Raleigh, N.C., for her fifth season in the NWSL. But this request was different. She needed someone with patience. Someone with a sense of humor. Someone who eats eggs—lots of eggs. Her five chickens—Toulouse, Rocky, Quinn, Chelsea and Juke, purchased spontaneously during quarantine—lay multiple per day and require a much more unusual skill set to watch over than your average house cat.

“I treat them as if they’re literally my children,” says Dunn, the North Carolina Courage and U.S. women's national team's versatile star. “I always make sure they are taken care of.”

Like all of us, Dunn did not expect 2020 to go like this. At the beginning of the year, there were definitely no chickens in the picture. In January, she envisioned herself spending the summer with the USWNT in Tokyo, competing for an Olympic gold medal and seeking redemption after the team’s shocking quarterfinal ouster at Rio 2016. Instead, she found herself locked down for months, caring for a handful of squawking animals and preparing to head into a bubble in Utah to play an abbreviated tournament with the Courage. If you think this type of chaos and uncertainty could rattle Dunn, well, you probably don’t know her at all.

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As a star on the USWNT, Dunn is known for her ability to adapt to any position, and her masterful ball skills give her an advantage anywhere on the pitch. She can defend. She can attack. And you better believe she can score. On the rare occasion that she’s beaten to the ball, her devastating speed allows her to recover quickly. Dunn’s personality also gives her an edge—she has the confidence to play anywhere. As the USWNT team’s unofficial DJ, Dunn is always dancing. She is the pulse of the team, lifting its spirits with her positivity and poise and steadily controlling the tempo of the game from her spot at left back–or wherever she's needed on a given day.

This March, as lockdowns began due to the coronavirus, Dunn was forced to adapt again. Instead of training with the national team in the spring, she began daily jogs around her new neighborhood in Portland to stay fit. Luckily, she says, her husband and Portland Thorns trainer, Pierre Soubrier, helped her stay sharp and focused amid the worst of the pandemic. Dunn was skeptical when she first heard about the NWSL Challenge Cup plans, and by the time the tournament began in the summer, the police killing of George Floyd had sparked protests and unrest across the country, only adding to her hesitance. Like many of her teammates, she wondered: Would playing sports during a multifaceted economic, public health and social justice crisis distract from the reckoning that was happening in the U.S.?

As the first professional athletes in North America to return to action during the pandemic, Dunn and her teammates not only had to worry about the risk of COVID-19, but they also had to decide how to respond to ongoing protests against racism and police brutality. The country’s unrest had reached a boiling point in late June, when the NWSL was set to resume play.

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When the Courage decided they would kneel for the anthem at the opening match, they reached out to their opponent, the Thorns, who agreed to do the same. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out over a crowdless Zions Bank Stadium on June 27, in Herriman, Utah, both teams took a knee while wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. “We took a knee today to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America,” read a joint statement from the Courage and Thorns released at kickoff. An NWSL-broadcast-record 572,000 fans tuned into CBS to watch the game.

“This wasn't about what North Carolina wanted to do or what Portland wanted to do. This was about collectively having that very powerful message displayed on TV,” Dunn says. “For us to all be unified and putting out the same message was really, really important to us.”

Before this year, Dunn had not kneeled during the national anthem before USWNT games, even though her teammate, Megan Rapinoe, had previously kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.

“In that moment, [Rapinoe] was standing up for me and my rights, and at that time, I was so grateful to her,” Dunn says. “But I was also like, Dude, I'm the only one on this team. I don't have that support from others that look like me or have shared experiences like me. And she understood completely and was like, Listen, I'm coming from a place of privilege. I know that I can do this and you'll get backlash. But I know that I need to do this. I know that the world needs to be more educated on issues that necessarily don't concern them, but they should be involved in regardless.

In recent years, Dunn has become vocal and more open to sharing her experiences with racism. She has seen how her teammates who are not Black are willing to listen to her and educate themselves on issues of race and, more specifically, police brutality. To her, the protests have changed, too.

“I think three, four years ago, it was about kneeling in order to create the protests. I think kneeling now looks different and means something different,” Dunn says. “Especially in the NWSL Challenge Cup, [it] was about my teammates supporting me and showing solidarity. So I do think changes already happened. And, yes, I feel differently now than I did four years ago, just knowing that more people are educated on what's going on in the world and are more willing to listen and learn.”

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Though not always as vocal, Dunn has always been an energetic spark on her teams. As a senior in high school, she won five Player of the Year awards, including New York Gatorade Player of the Year, and her athletic abilities made her a top recruit in the state. For Anson Dorrance, the longtime head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels women's soccer program, it was Dunn’s dribbling skills and touch on the ball that caught his eye.

After graduating from South Side High School (Rockville Centre, N.Y.) in 2010, Dunn accepted a full scholarship to UNC to play for Dorrance, whom she describes as “the father you don’t want to disappoint.” Dunn won one national championship with the Tar Heels in 2013, but Dorrance swears they would have won a second had Dunn stayed healthy her senior year. After college, she was the first overall pick for the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, where she started 19 games as a rookie. While ascending the league ranks, Dunn also fought tirelessly for a roster spot on the 2015 World Cup team. Even though Dunn had grown up in U.S. Soccer’s developmental camps, won a U-20 World Cup in 2012 and proved to be a standout in college and rising NWSL star, she could not shake the pressure of national team camps. Making the USWNT during a World Cup year is a completely different beast, and soon, 2015 became the most challenging of Dunn’s young career.

“Anyone that knows me knows that I'm pretty laid back, pretty chill. I try to really pump as much positive energy into the world as I possibly can,” Dunn says. “But leading into 2015, I was not that person. I was hanging on to every word that a coach would say to me and ... I would put that into my own self and really believe what everyone else was probably thinking of me and not really trusting in my own abilities.”

Dunn was one of the last players to be cut from the national team roster by head coach Jill Ellis that spring. While Dunn was devastated, feeling like her career was at a crossroads, time away from the national team turned out to be exactly what she needed, physically and mentally. For the first time in years, Dunn was able to work on her craft away from the ultra competitive squad of stars, focusing on her own game, her role on her NWSL team and on finding joy in playing soccer.

“Constantly being in an environment where you just never felt like your best self, stepping away from that just gave me a breather,” she says. “It allowed me to create a new environment and get used to teammates again and really just lean on other people to really help me get through that moment, because it wasn't all on me.”

In true Crystal Dunn fashion, she flipped the negative into a positive. Instead of 2015 being the lowest point of her career, it became a catalyst for her future success. 

“I think missing out on the World Cup actually was in hindsight now probably the best thing for my career, because I went on in 2015 to win the league MVP and the Golden Boot in that year,” she says. “I really defined who I wanted to be and I found myself again. I made a promise to myself that I would trust in who I was, work hard to be the best teammate I can be and constantly keep growing, because I think the moment that you get complacent or you feel like you've made it is the moment that you should probably retire, because I think you should never stop learning.”

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With some pressure off her back, Dunn played her best, most fearless soccer yet. She watched the World Cup that summer from afar, with some sadness and FOMO, seeing many of her friends competing on the world’s biggest stage. 2015 also marked the year Dunn met Soubrier. Three years later, they married, in a wedding Dorrance describes as “basically a six-hour dance party with a little ceremony in the middle for when they exchanged vows, and then the dancing resumed right after that.”

“It was one of the most glorious dance-party weddings I've ever been to in my life,” Dorrance says. “And of course, it had to be. This is Crystal's wedding.”

After 2015 with a NWSL MVP and Golden Boot on her résumé, Dunn found a spot again with the national team. She soon became a regular, quickly adapting to her new role.

"Her positive attitude is a reason this team can grind every day, every training,” says U.S. midfielder Julie Ertz. “You need the level changed, she's got you. She starts the day with so much positivity that it’s hard not to feed off of that. She brings fun and funny to a new level."

When Dunn earned a spot on the 2019 roster for her first World Cup, she was ready to meet the moment. Instead of feeling jittery as she walked onto the pitch for the U.S.’s first match against Thailand, a sense of relief overcame her.

After a 13–0 victory over Thailand in the opener, the USWNT’s stalwart defense helped pave the way for the team’s second consecutive World Cup victory. Playing at left back throughout the tournament, Dunn stepped up to the challenge and shut down some of the world’s best attackers with her characteristic competitiveness and quickness. When the team hoisted the World Cup trophy, with her family and French in-laws watching, Dunn felt the joy and excitement that only the sport’s biggest title could bring. With soccer out of the way, Dunn resumed her duties as team dancer-in-chief. A whirlwind of press, cross-country flights and a ticker-tape parade in her home state of New York followed.

Running on very little sleep, Dunn rode a float through Manhattan with her teammates while confetti rained down. Fans packed the street blocks with signs, jerseys and projectiles ready to throw their way. Young girls craned their necks trying to get a glimpse of the team, some on their mother’s shoulders. 

“The parade was an experience that you just will never dream of,” she says.

When 2019 came to a close, after months of press, parties and yes, even more soccer, Dunn was coming off a tremendous (and exhausting) high, and 2020, for multiple reasons, didn't allow for those good times to continue. 

After the Courage were knocked out from the NWSL Challenge Cup, Dunn returned to Portland, letting her pet sitter off the hook earlier than expected. That may have been the only silver lining for a world-class, one-of-a-kind player. 

“I hate losing to its core,” she says.

With an atypical year winding down, Dunn is finding comfort spending time in her new home with her husband and five chickens, but she still craves a return to competition. As she visualizes 2021, an optimistic-as-ever Dunn hopes the coming year will be filled with less uncertainty than the past seven months. A year featuring more games, a regular NWSL season, pre-Olympic training camps, a gold medal around her neck, plenty of dancing and time with her teammates in person to help further conversations on social justice and equality on and off the field. Whatever happens in 2021, Dunn will adapt once more.

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