Crystal Dunn wants you to know her face and hear her voice.
If you follow soccer, you should probably watch out for them anyway. She is the defender-turned-attacker who has played out of position as a left-back for the US women’s national team for the past few years – well enough to land at # 6 on ESPN FC’s women’s rankings. If the USWNT manages to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Dunn will almost certainly play a key role on both sides of the ball.
But for all of her top-level successes – including a 2019 World Cup trophy, 119 international appearances and two NWSL championships – she was not often in the limelight. The attention was always focused on her team-mates upstairs, and after winning the World Cup, she really hit it: she felt invisible.
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“I’m a veteran on the national team and I still feel like I’m struggling to get my face and representation out,” Dunn told ESPN before the USWNT’s Olympic campaign began. “And if I feel that way, it means that a lot of black women who show up feel that way.”
To be clear, Dunn said it wasn’t about them. It’s about the little girls who look like them – the little girls who might have a story similar to how Dunn grew up.
When Dunn’s parents Vincent and Rhonda decided to move from Queens but stay in New York, they had the usual checklist: a good school system, a manageable drive to town, a safe place for their children to grow up. But when they chose Rockville Center on Long Island and Crystal moved there as a toddler, it was a fluke.
“We talked about it,” Crystal’s father Vincent told ESPN. “We checked out a few different cities nearby and would have stayed in Queens and never ventured to Long Island or picked any city other than Rockville Center, there’s a very good chance Crystal wouldn’t have played football in a place that was a big football city. “
Dunn played soccer growing up just because the kids at Rockville Center did – their parents knew nothing about the sport and no one had to push them. Some friends tried to recruit her to play lacrosse, but the women’s version of the sport didn’t allow her to be verified, so she wasn’t interested. She made it onto the basketball team when her friends encouraged her to try it, but then her friends didn’t make it. Football was the one she was always drawn to alone.
But at the same time, no one on her teams looked like her. As Dunn puts it, “I feel like I found my identity in this sport at a young age, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel lonely along the way.”
“I was very aware of this from a young age, but my parents always instilled so much trust in me,” said Dunn of being the only black girl on her team. “They said, ‘Don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do. If playing football makes you happy, there is no way you feel like you may look different from everyone else. You have to follow your heart, follow’ your dreams. ‘ I think my parents told me it really prepared me for the rest of my career from a young age because I haven’t played on many teams with so many of us. “
In fact, not much has changed in the two decades or so since Dunn, who is now 29, switched from running in an oversized AYSO shirt to the Olympics. For all the perceived diversity within football as a global sport, Dunn was often one of the few black women on their teams.
Instead of accepting their experience as the standard for little girls who look like them, Dunn is trying to change that.
Late last year she helped found the Black Women’s Player Collective, an organization that enables NWSL players like Dunn to put their experiences into action. The group, which includes non-black allies, has worked on initiatives like installing mini soccer fields in underserved communities – sometimes with Black Players for Change, although the two causes are not linked – and has other plans in the works.
But that’s not all. Dunn also hopes to bring about this change by blatantly being herself and being the most crystalline Dunn she can be. For the first time in your career, that means being completely honest without holding back.
After all, for years she was a head bowed gamer who worked hard without saying much. Even when reporters asked her a question about a topic she would like to venture on – such as her frustration at being beaten in shoes as a defense attorney – she gave the polite, non-controversial answer.
Despite her attacking ability, Crystal Dunn was played as a left-back for much of her career with the USWNT. Elsa / Getty Images
Not anymore, she said.
“It’s harder to stand up for yourself and feel like you can stand out as a rookie or as a young person entering a new field,” said Dunn. “I’ve been with the national team for 11 years now, over a hundred international matches, and I now feel able to stand up for more and push for more, especially for diversity in sport, because I’ve reached a level that I feel like that I can ask for these things now. “
Your place in the USWNT has established itself more firmly than ever in the last few years as the only reliable solution of the USWNT as a left-back for the team’s style of play. She has also settled in at her club and this year signs a three-year deal with the Portland Thorns where she is a first choice as an attacking midfielder, which enabled her to be full-time in Oregon with her husband, an athlete, coach for the Thorns .
Dunn is still the first to start a dance party in the locker room and fool around during workouts. Her social media presence is filled with photos of her cats and chickens, and she jokes that in Japan she is more interested in getting updates about them than talking to her husband. “I get videos every day – I need proof of life,” she joked from Japan. But she has allowed a more serious side to emerge.
Her father said it was part of a “maturation” and personal growth that he had recently seen from his daughter. “She’s not afraid to speak up, which has made a huge difference over the past few years,” he said.
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So for Dunn, feeling more relaxed means being honest about everything from feeling marginalized as a Black woman to her real opinion of playing the left-back amid the glowing headlines about her versatility. Her standard answer in the past has always been that she just wants to help the team. This is not a lie, but there is more to it.
“I think I just got tired one day – don’t people know what I’m going through?” said Dunn with a laugh.
First, it’s actually a lot harder than Dunn makes it look, constantly changing positions and moving from attacking midfield to defensive line.
“It’s a challenge to play as an attacker in the past and take that off and then step onto the national team on the biggest stage and be asked to be the best full-back in the world,” said Dunn. “I don’t think people understand that.”
But since Dunn accepts to be her authentic self, she can’t help but feel that part of her is often left behind as a full-back.
“I always hope to get a little further up,” said Dunn. “What I’ve tried, what has helped me find joy as a full-back, is the feeling of being able to bring my flair to the position. Nobody can play every position the same way and yes, my responsibility is” with the back Line to stay connected and defend, but once I have the green light to move forward I will become Crystal Dunn. “
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When Swedes defeated the USWNT to open the Olympics, the Swedes did so in part by holding Dunn back and isolating her from her teammates so she couldn’t work her magic. The secret of Dunn’s way of playing full-back is out and as the USWNT moves into the knockout stage of the tournament, starting with the quarter-finals against the Netherlands on Friday, more teams will try to contain them.
“The fact that she is a super good defender but can also take down teams offensively is a quality that not many players in the world have, regardless of whether they are male or female,” said the USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski at the beginning of the month. “Not many players have the ability to change their personality and style of play as they advance on the field. Crystal has the ability to change her profile literally three times in one attack. She starts building up as a left full-back and then she changes her personality or profile and plays as a midfielder as we move up, and then we’ll see her end in one-on-one action with a cross or a Shot ends, which is a forward profile.
“That makes them special and makes them one of the best in the world.”
Dunn is extremely competitive and hates to lose, just as you can expect from a top athlete. But whether or not it can help lead the USWNT to its fifth gold medal, it gets its job just by being out there in the field.
After all, her most memorable encounter with a fan was at an airport when she noticed the look of a young black girl. Dunn said hello and introduced herself, and the girl told Dunn that she already knew who she was – Dunn had inspired the girl to play soccer. She has never left the power of this moment.
“It really makes me feel like that’s why I’m playing the game,” said Dunn. “Everyone is motivated to stay in the sport for so many different reasons and even the way I got into the sport was just love of the game – nobody forced me – and even when I was the only one looked like I stayed. So if I can inspire everyone who looks like me to be comfortable, that’s exactly what I have to do. “