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What Crystal Dunn’s position switch says about USWNT defense

Crystal Dunn plays in a different position for the USWNT than she does for her NWSL club. (Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The debate is raging once again about Crystal Dunn’s ideal role for the U.S. women’s national team after the midfielder for club and defender for country told GQ Sports that her dual roles take a toll on her mentally.

“I step into camp, and I feel like I lose a part of myself. I no longer get to be Crystal who scores goals, assists, is this attacking player,” she said in a wide-ranging intervies last week, highlighting the friction between her endless versatility and desire to hone one particular role.

Dunn also made a salient soccer point, which is that the U.S. is nearing the 2023 World Cup while likely relying once again on converted attackers and center-backs to fill the outside-back player pool. The reigning World Champions head into their final SheBelieves Cup game against Brazil undefeated, but issues with the approach have been visible in their first two games.

The risk and reward of Sofia Huerta

The USWNT doesn’t score their lone goal against Japan on Sunday without Sofia Huerta. In a two-pass, long-ball sequence, Huerta spotted Alex Morgan at midfield as the USWNT regained possession off a Japan corner kick. She lofted the ball toward Morgan, who passed it quickly to a streaking Mallory Swanson. Swanson brought the ball down beautifully, shot across her body and scored what would end up being the deciding goal.

That sequence showcased exactly what valuable skills Huerta brings to the U.S., and in a close game, she could be the difference between the team advancing and being eliminated in a knockout situation. The U.S. registered only five shots on Sunday. Japan swarmed defensively and made it very difficult for the USWNT to generate shots from their build-up play.

Japan’s success in creating overloads to pin the U.S. back also exposed the vulnerabilities Huerta has to overcome on the right side in a winner-take-all situation. Huerta grew into the game, but Japan’s four-player midfield caused problems for both the USWNT’s midfield and backline.

Thorns and Japanese midfielder Hina Sugita presented a particularly stiff challenge for Huerta on both ends of the ball, requiring forward Lynn Williams to take on defensive duties from an attacking position rather than focusing on combining to create chances on the other end.

After the game, head coach Vlatko Andonovski discussed the way the team adjusted their shape in the second half to give greater support to the wings. Still, Japan outlined the blueprint to make the USWNT sweat when they don’t have the ball. Huerta’s side of the pitch has been targeted before, a dynamic that can swallow up the defender’s best qualities and force her teammates into reactive roles. The 30-year-old has successfully figured out reactive defense that doesn’t concede goals, as in Sunday’s victory, so it’s a balance worth monitoring.

Dunn and Fox’s versatility locks them in

When Emily Fox began to rise through the USWNT ranks at left back in Crystal Dunn’s absence due to her pregnancy, it appeared Dunn might have the opportunity to move away from the position.

Fox plays the outside-back position similarly to Dunn, with an ability to defend 1v1 and combine with the midfield to progress the ball. She’s been an essential addition to the roster, with a versatility and calmness that have allowed the team to focus on other vulnerable areas of the pitch.

But in 2023, Fox’s presence hasn’t actually created a pathway for Dunn to move up the pitch because of a lack of depth not on the left side but the right. Against New Zealand and Canada, Fox took over the right-back position and Dunn slotted back in on the left, giving the defense a sense of stability on the wings that Andonovski will likely rely on during the World Cup.

Emily Fox has become an asset to the USWNT at the right-back position. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Kelley O’Hara’s return from a hip injury that has kept her sidelined for much of the last six months will offer some respite on the right side. But currently, Dunn and Fox might be the only two players Andonovski trusts to provide defensive cover, know when it’s appropriate to push forward and when to hold, and support the wingers on the attack. The U.S. likes to push outside backs forward to bring width to the attack, and Dunn’s ability on the ball is as much an asset as her mental fortitude to hold when necessary.

As it stands, Andonovski’s favored starting pair places Fox on the side opposite to her natural position and requires another year of immense mental focus from Dunn. This self-made situation dates back years, with the U.S. preferring to convert attackers than develop outside backs at the youth levels. But Dunn also seems to make Lindsey Horan most comfortable on the left side of the midfield, and Fox requires less help defense from the right-side wingers in front of her.

The U.S. could absolutely use Dunn’s skills in the midfield, which still does not look settled. But it’s also to Dunn’s credit that she’s still one of the team’s best options in a position she only hones in national team camp.

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