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The case for moving Crystal Dunn into the USWNT midfield

Crystal Dunn returned to the field for the USWNT in October after giving birth in May. (Ion Alcoba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This piece was published in November 2022. The debate over Crystal Dunn’s best position with the U.S. women’s national team has resurfaced after she shared the difficulty of switching between midfield and defense in a profile for GQ Sports.

There’s no doubt about it: The U.S. women’s national team has missed Crystal Dunn. Off the field for most of 2022, the 30-year-old has been working her way back into soccer fitness after giving birth to her son, Marcel, in May. As Dunn gets closer to a full return, one big question has lingered: Where on the USWNT roster would she play?

Dunn began her USWNT career as a forward after winning the NWSL Golden Boot and MVP awards in 2015, but her versatility has been utilized heavily over the years. On the two U.S. rosters she’s made in 2022, she’s been listed as a defender, having carved out a role at outside back during the USWNT’s run to the 2019 World Cup title. For her club, however, she consistently plays in the midfield and has been very open about her preference to thrive in a position where she feels most comfortable.

All current signs point to Vlatko Andonovski’s intention to have Dunn return to outside back, but for the sake of the argument, let’s do a brainstorming exercise. What would it look like to play Crystal Dunn in the midfield? And could the USWNT use her there?

Let’s explore.

It’s not a new role

The idea of Dunn playing in the midfield doesn’t come out of nowhere; she’s assumed that role successfully for her club teams for years. After playing for the Washington Spirit and Chelsea as a forward early in her career, Dunn joined the North Carolina Courage’s box midfield in 2018. Paired in the attacking midfield with Debinha, and supported by defensive midfielders Sam Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan, Dunn helped North Carolina rise from a contender to a league-crushing super club.

The Courage won the NWSL Shield and Championship in 2018 and 2019, with Dunn’s playmaking ability and defensive tenacity at the heart of that success. In 2019, she won every domestic trophy possible as an attacking midfielder while also playing as a starting outside back for the USWNT in the World Cup. The toll it took on her was noticeable at the time.

“I struggled mentally. I had to take some time off from this club,” Dunn told the media in 2019. “Because I was battling, trying to be the world’s best [No.] 10, the world’s best forward on this team, and then go into national team camp.”

In 2021, Dunn joined Portland’s midfield, working in a dual-No. 8 system with Lindsey Horan. She and Horan would drift off of each other’s movements, anchored by the stellar play of Angela Salem behind them. Dunn appeared comfortable moving into wide and central areas while coordinating with Horan for pressing triggers on defense.

That Thorns team won the NWSL Shield, but the Mark Parsons-led midfield project was cut short by Dunn’s pregnancy, Horan’s subsequent loan to Olympique Lyon and Parsons’ departure for the Netherlands head coaching job. Dunn returned to Rhian Wilkinson’s Thorns in the last couple of months of the 2022 NWSL season. Coming in late to games, Dunn replaced other connecting midfielders as the No. 8 and helped seal results, including this year’s NWSL Championship.

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Rhian Wilkinson and the Thorns used Crystal Dunn as a super sub all the way through the NWSL title game. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

A defensive-minded midfielder

The world was reminded of what Dunn can bring in the attack when she smashed the semifinal game-winner that sent Portland to the 2022 NWSL title game. There’s also the argument that the USWNT doesn’t lack attacking talent, and it’s difficult to carve out Dunn’s place as a forward-hybrid when a number of other qualified players can’t break into the player pool in the same position.

Dunn’s experience as a wide defender, however, shouldn’t be used against her possible inclusion in the midfield; in fact, that versatility should be considered an asset. In her short time back with Portland in 2022, Dunn’s energy as a 1v1 defender from an advanced position made closing out games very difficult for her opponents.

Dunn’s recovery speed could also be a big help in the middle of the pitch. The USWNT has struggled to shore up space in front of the center-backs against top competition, employing a lone defensive midfielder despite the prolonged absence of Julie Ertz. The USWNT’s No. 6 has been caught on an island at times, leaving other players unsupported in the middle of the pitch.

In recent international games, every USWNT midfielder has had to decide whether to step up defensively or fall back into an off-the-ball position. Dunn’s decisiveness as a connecting midfielder could make a huge difference as the U.S. tries to control the middle of the pitch and support the No. 6. And the fact that she can spring attacks should be considered a bonus.

Making room

There are two key factors to moving Dunn into the USWNT’s midfield: room in the middle three and a successor at left-back.

The USWNT’s commitment to a 4-3-3 formation doesn’t leave a ton of room for experimentation, with clear roles for the No. 6 (usually Andi Sullivan or Sam Coffey), a box-to-box No. 8 (Lindsey Horan) and a No. 10 who can also drift into wide spaces (Rose Lavelle). Against opponents that bunker down on defense, the U.S. will sometimes play with a more attacking-minded approach, bringing on Ashley Sanchez to connect with Lavelle.

Against more possession-minded opponents, though, there’s room to give Dunn a look. She can help settle areas where the U.S. is often prone to turnovers with her dribbling, and as shown in Portland this year, teams have a hard time compensating for her as a super sub. Using Dunn as a 1-2 punch with Horan — not unlike the rotation of Horan and Sam Mewis in 2019 — could give the U.S. midfield some stability without fully overhauling the formation.

As for what Dunn leaves behind her at outside back, the emergence of Emily Fox and development of Hailie Mace offer some relief to a position that was once considered a depth concern for the USWNT. Fox has struggled with injury and illness in 2022, but if she can stay healthy, the left-back rotation is more stable.

There’s also the simple fact that no other current player in the USWNT pool plays such a starkly different role for country as they do for club. Sofia Huerta is the most recent example of a converted outside back, but she now plays the role consistently for OL Reign. Mace played as a wingback for the Kansas City Current this season, and Emily Sonnett is a center-back who can play wide when needed.

“New coach coming in for the national team, wherever he sees me, I have to say, ‘If you want me playing in this position, I’m going to be the best in that position,’” Dunn said in 2019.

Every national team manager has to give something up to get the best out of their team, but in a perfect world, the USWNT would have Crystal Dunn at her most comfortable rather than split into two positions, expending the mental energy to adapt.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Crypto.com Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a Change.org petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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