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Crystal Dunn the ‘epitome of a leader’ for NWSL final-bound Thorns

Crystal Dunn celebrates scoring the game-winning goal for Portland in the NWSL semifinals Sunday. (Amanda Loman/Getty Images)

Crystal Dunn gave birth to her son 156 days ago. Portland head coach Rhian Wilkinson has food in her fridge older than that.

And yet, there Dunn was in front of 22,035 fans at Providence Park on Sunday evening, scoring the winning goal to send the Portland Thorns through to Saturday’s NWSL championship game with a 2-1 win over the San Diego Wave. Portland will play the Kansas City Current for the trophy on Saturday, Oct. 29 in Washington, D.C.

Dunn’s goal wasn’t the result of just any shot. It was a volleyed bullet into the top left corner, sealing the comeback she’s made to professional soccer in the last five months.

“What Crystal Dunn did, it is incredible what she did,” Wilkinson said of Dunn’s journey.

The 2021 Concacaf Player of the Year, who played her first NWSL game back at the beginning of September, just three months and 20 days after giving birth to Marcel Soubrier, was never pressured by her club to return to the field. She also wasn’t gifted minutes when she was ready to play. The goal to be on the pitch by the fall was her own, and the minutes she’s played in the five games since then, she’s earned in training.

To fight for minutes on one of the winningest teams in the NWSL is not easy for any player. That never slowed the World Cup champion, who, even before becoming a mother, was on the field passing balls until she was nine months pregnant.

Dunn subbed into Sunday’s match at the attacking midfield position in the 62nd minute, taking off Rocky Rodriguez, who had evened the scoreline 1-1 in the first half with a top-shelf screamer of her own. Registering 30 touches and completing 83 percent of her passes, Dunn was joined on the field by subs Christine Sinclair and Janine Beckie. They outworked a tired San Diego backline, creating endless scoring opportunities as the second half wore on.

And in the third minute of stoppage time, on just her second shot of the game, Dunn finally broke the tie.

“They won the game for us,” Wilkinson said of the three subs. “The players that start, there’s ego attached to that, but they’re not the ones who finish the game. The players that come on win us the game, and that’s something that I keep trying to highlight because it’s outside people who put a lot of emphasis on who starts. It’s actually the players on the field at the end of the game that have the biggest impact, and we saw that today.”

Dunn’s contributions came at the right time, not just in this game or any game, but in her leadership off the field, where she’s had a noticeable effect on the team in the second half of the season.

While Dunn was on maternity leave, veteran players Sinclair, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg led the Thorns to the No. 2 seed in the NWSL playoffs. But to Wilkinson, it’s clear the team has missed Dunn’s flair.

“She should be the poster woman for everything,” the coach said. “The way she leads, the energy she brings to training, how she connects the team.”

“I’m not in [the locker room], so I don’t know what she does,” Wilkinson later added. “But I do see how everyone respects her and comes to talk to her. I see how she talks to people or notices when people don’t look like they’re enjoying something. She’s very active in that.”

When Dunn isn’t socializing or checking in on teammates, she is naturally introverted and quiet. She prefers to do her own thing, but not until everyone else feels taken care of.

“That is the epitome of a leader,” said Wilkinson. “She knows what’s needed, and she gives it as much as she can.

“I can only speak for myself. She lifts my spirits. I think she’s great. And it seems we have a good team. They like each other. What a great thing to have a team that likes each other. They want to spend time together and they like when she’s there.”

Outside of the Thorns’ locker room, soccer fans everywhere saw that for themselves on Sunday.

“Oh my god, that was just an explosion of emotions for the whole stadium, the whole city,” Rodriguez said after the game. “And the fact that it was Crystal, I mean, we got on the field, she came and celebrated with the whole team. Everybody came together. So it was really emotional and just the perfect way to end.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.