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The case for the most essential USWNT player: Crystal Dunn

Crystal Dunn's versatility makes her invaluable to the U.S. women's national team. (John Todd/USSF/Getty Images)

Each month in the leadup to the World Cup, Just Women’s Sports will make the case for one player as most essential to the success of the U.S. women’s national team in 2023. Our final selection: Crystal Dunn.

Crystal Dunn will play defense for the U.S. women’s national team at the 2023 World Cup, staking her claim as one of the best at the position across the globe. Yet her natural position is midfield, and she could stake her claim there as well.

Much to the chagrin of USWNT fans, Dunn cannot play in two positions at once. But she has the skills to excel at both, and that versatility will make her invaluable to the USWNT in its quest for a three-peat.

With little more than a month until the World Cup kicks off, Dunn is peaking at the right time. The 30-year-old is a frontrunner in the NWSL’s Golden Boot race and has been excelling in midfield for the Portland Thorns, working well with USWNT teammate Sophia Smith.

“Her special awareness puts ourselves in a good position,” first-year Thorns head coach Mike Norris said. “She reads the game well and obviously is attacking minded.”

“The running joke is I’m scoring the same exact goal,” Dunn said after scoring her fifth goal of the season. “Teams clearly think I’m not good enough to be marked in the box. They keep leaving me open and that’s just fine.”

As Just Women’s Sports writer Claire Watkins has pointed out, the U.S. could use such skills in the midfield, which has yet to look settled. Exacerbating the midfield situation is the fact that star Catarina Macario will be out of this summer’s World Cup due to extended recovery from an ACL tear. And while Julie Ertz has made her return, she is still working her way back to full speed.

Yet while Dunn would provide a boost in the midfield, she provides stability at the defensive position.

With Kelley O’Hara a question mark, Dunn is one of just two players – alongside Emily Fox – that can slot into the right- and left-back positions, providing defensive cover that could be needed as the USWNT faces increasingly tougher opponents as the tournament goes on.

“Crystal Dunn is a versatile player, and that’s what makes her special,” USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski said in October 2019. “Not just Crystal Dunn, but anybody on the roster will be put in a position where we feel that they can strive, get better and develop, but at the same time help the team be successful.”

That versatility should be the envy of national teams everywhere. But it can put a lot of pressure on Dunn, who can be tasked with doing just about anything and everything.

“I think my versatility has come with perspective, but it also comes with a lot of pain,” Dunn recently told the “Diaspora United” podcast. “A lot of feeling of, you don’t belong any place on the field, you just belong where the coach puts you. And that doesn’t always feel great. I think I’ve always tried to hide away from saying that and being honest about that.”

Still, she admits that she’s a “competitor” and will play just about anywhere. That mentality has made her crucial for the USWNT.

“When I was younger, I used to be a little bothered by it, but I think now I’ve stepped into this space where I’m like, no, this is me,” Dunn told the “Diaspora United” podcast. “This is a space not a lot of people get to walk in, and that’s OK. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable anymore. It makes me feel like this is actually my superpower.”

And perhaps there is room for creativity at the left back position to make the best use of that superpower. After all, soccer is an ever-evolving game, and if the USWNT wants to remain a step above, it may need to think outside of the box.

As the World Cup approaches, a player of Dunn’s abilities could change the game at any given moment. She can create chances for teammates and also provide a boost in the backfield, a multi-faceted star any team would covet. And that’s what makes her one of the most essential players on the USWNT.

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