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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)

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.

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.

USWNT to face Costa Rica in final Olympic send-off

uswnt sophia smith and tierna davidson celebrate at shebeilves cup 2024
The USWNT will play their final pre-Olympic friendly against Costa Rica on July 16th. (Photo by Greg Bartram/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

U.S. Soccer announced Tuesday that the USWNT will play their last home game on July 16th in the lead-up to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

The 2024 Send-Off Match against Costa Rica will take place at Washington, DC’s Audi Field — home to both the Washington Spirit and DC United — at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 16th. The friendly rounds out a four-game Olympic run-up campaign under incoming head coach Emma Hayes’ side, with the last two set to feature the finalized 2024 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team roster.

Hayes will appear on the USWNT sideline for the first time this June, helming the team as they embark on a two-game series against Korea Republic hosted by Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado on June 1st followed by Allianz Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 4th. 

The team is then scheduled to meet a talented Mexico squad on July 13th at Gotham FC’s Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Olympic-bound lineup will attempt to rewrite February’s shocking 2-0 loss to El Tri Femenil in the group stages of this year’s Concacaf W Gold Cup. And while clear roster favorites have emerged from both of this year’s Gold Cup and SheBelives Cup rosters, a spate of recent and recurring injuries means making it to the Olympics is still largely anyone’s game.

Broadcast and streaming channels for the USWNT's final July 16th friendly at Audi Field include TNT, truTV, Universo, Max, and Peacock.

Caitlin Clark’s WNBA start to serve as 2024 Olympic tryout

Clark of the Indiana Fever poses for a photo with Lin Dunn and Christie Sides during her introductory press conference on April 17, 2024
The talented Fever rookie is still in the running for a ticket to this summer's Paris Olympics. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The USA Basketball Women's National Team is still considering Caitlin Clark for a spot on the Paris Olympics squad, says selection committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti. 

On Monday, Rizzotti told the AP that the committee will be evaluating the college phenom’s Olympic prospects by keeping a close eye on her first few weeks of WNBA play with Indiana.

The move is somewhat unconventional. While Clark was invited to participate in the 14-player national team training camp held earlier this month — the last camp before Team USA’s roster drops — she was unable to attend due to it coinciding with Iowa’s trip to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Judging by the immense talent spread throughout the league in what might be their most hyped season to date, competition for a piece of the Olympic pie could be fiercer than ever before.

"You always want to introduce new players into the pool whether it's for now or the future," said Rizzotti. "We stick to our principles of talent, obviously, positional fit, loyalty and experience. It's got to be a combination of an entire body of work. It's still not going to be fair to some people."

Of course, Clark isn’t the first rookie the committee has made exceptions for. Coming off an exceptional college season that saw her averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for UConn, Breanna Stewart was tapped to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil less than two weeks after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Storm. Eight years prior, fellow No. 1 pick Candace Parker punched her ticket to the 2008 Games in Beijing just two weeks after making her first appearance for the L.A. Sparks.

In the lead-up to Paris’ Opening Ceremony on July 26th, USA Basketball Women’s National Team is scheduled to play a pair of exhibition games. They'll first go up against the WNBA's finest at the July 20th WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix before facing Germany in London on July 23rd.

While an official roster announcement date hasn’t yet been issued, players won’t find out if they’ve made this year’s Olympic cut until at least June 1st.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

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