For the U.S.'s most versatile player, the journey from left behind to left back was a painful one—but there's a happy ending, no matter what happens in France

CRYSTAL DUNN wanted to watch the 2015 Women's World Cup—just not by herself. And that was a problem for the fragile 22-year-old defender.

She was the last player cut before the U.S. squad headed off to Canada that June, and it was too humiliating to relive that pain with her teammates on the NWSL's Washington Spirit. Dunn recalls feeling embarrassed, "like I'm useless, worthless." Her family, six hours away in Rockville Center, N.Y., wasn't an option either. What Dunn needed was someone nearby who loved soccer as much as she did, and who wouldn't judge her emotions, which she says were "up, down, all around."

One person had potential: the Spirit's French-born athletic trainer, Pierre Soubrier. He was cool and kind, and he knew the game well from his days playing in the French Ligue 1 with Toulouse FC. Eventually Dunn asked him to watch with her. Soubrier was hesitant; they had a professional relationship. But he agreed, and the two hit it off while catching the U.S.'s three knockout-stage games at a D.C. bar.

Soubrier would listen to Dunn vent and then remind her how talented she was, advising her to use the adversity as a learning experience. "Life's too short," he would say, "and [you] don't have time to waste with negative thoughts." Recalls Dunn, "That's what saved me, knowing that life goes on—there'll be a couple of months where you feel left behind, but then you realize: I'm valuable. And I can work on ways to improve."

Now, Dunn sees how it's all connected: her getting cut, her reaching out to Soubrier, her growth off the field and on it. Three months after her U.S. teammates lifted the World Cup trophy she won NWSL's MVP award, as a high-scoring forward. (Her 15 goals were one behind the league record.) She made the 2016 Summer Olympic team at forward and started all four games. She spent a season with Chelsea, where the experience of four Champions League games forced her to learn to be more technical and tactical, seeing the field better and more creatively and becoming more active without the ball. That versatility helped her lead the North Carolina Courage to the NWSL title in '18 and will now allow coach Jill Ellis to deploy her as the USWNT's first choice left back in France. Dunn credits this resurgence to Soubrier, who, she says, "helped me see that ['15] was just the beginning of my story."

It's a story in which Soubrier now plays a leading role. The two started dating after that 2015 NWSL season and married last December on Long Island. "Who's to say [this] would have happened if I were at the World Cup [four years ago]?" Dunn says.

"It was part of the learning experience, how pissed off she was," adds the 31-year-old Soubrier, who's now the head trainer for the Portland Thorns. (This month he'll cheer for his adopted team over his native France, which has the second-best Cup odds, behind the U.S.) "Looking back at how much good this one thing has had on her professionally, personally—it's been a blessing."