In a perfect world for the U.S. women’s national team, Wednesday’s opening soccer match against New Zealand would have been entirely unremarkable. For a team seeking to defend both its 2012 gold medal and 2015 Women’s World Cup title, the first contest of a two-and-a-half-week Olympic tournament should have felt like the first day on any new job: a time to neatly attend to business and hopefully emerge unnoticed and unscathed. And while the Americans mostly did that thanks to an early goal from Carli Lloyd and an insurance score by Alex Morgan less than a minute into the second half of a comfortable 2–0 win, there were a few minor irregularities along the way.
The local crowd in Belo Horizonte, small in number but strong in affront, chided goalie Hope Solo for some Zika-related half-humor she had uploaded to her Twitter account. They booed when she touched the ball and chanted Zika (or maybe something else?), and generally made sure that the confrontation would dominate the Day 1 soccer headlines. But regardless of how passionate these fans may have felt about their cause, it’s a pretty safe bet that they weren’t as riled up on Wednesday night as another zealous, jealous soccer demographic: Crystal Dunn superfans.
A dynamic 5-foot-1 talent who grew up on Long Island and played soccer at the University of North Carolina, the 24-year-old Dunn has long attracted fans who love her all-out style of play and her winning charm. She has the height and explosiveness of a gymnast; the sunny disposition of your most pleasant friend; and the touch of an artist regarding an enormous canvas inside a giant loft space and throwing her body, gently but wholly, into every brush stroke. Want a fun and fruitful YouTube search? Try crystal dunn best goals. Or, even better, crystal dunn dancing. “You turn any song on,” said Katie Stengel, one of Dunn’s teammates on the Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League, “and she’ll just start dancing. Every morning we’re all hauling in half asleep and she’s just going at it, dancing away, always laughing.”
It’s easy to love Dunn, which is why it was so hard to stomach when, last spring, she was one of the last two players cut from the national team before the Women’s World Cup. To this day, despite the team’s success at the tournament, there are USWNT fans who feel she deserved a spot on that roster. But you’ll never hear a complaint from Dunn, who channeled her disappointment into her NWSL play, scored a league-high 15 goals in 2015, and eventually returned to the national team for a post-World Cup tour. Heading into the Olympics, the onetime defender seemed to have found her niche as a forward who plays out wide. She has amassed 10 goals in international play, second only to Morgan in 2016, and many looked forward to seeing her in Rio.
So when Wednesday’s starting lineup was released before the game and Dunn’s name wasn’t on it, some soccer fans reacted with only slightly over-the-top despair. One writer for soccer publication Howler Magazine tweeted out a poll. “Which meme best represents your feelings about Crystal Dunn being left out of the USWNT lineup?” she asked, offering three choices: a confused cartoon crab, a clenched cartoon fist, or a resigned cartoon hellscape. Stopping to think rationally, it might have become apparent that maybe head coach Jill Ellis was trying not to overallocate playing time so early in the tournament, with the team scheduled to play three times, in two cities, over the first six days.
But Dunn fans can be forgiven for being on constant vigil, on high alert. Just after halftime, Dunn was substituted into the game, and at one point she dribbled past several defenders, put the ball on net, and nearly scored. At that moment, there was much joy in Dunnville. And USWNT fans are hoping that remains the case.
For most of her life, Dunn had always been in the right place at the right time, whether on the soccer pitch or in a more macro and existential sense. Her father didn’t know, when he moved his young family from Queens to the Long Island suburb Rockville Centre when Crystal was a toddler in the mid-’90s, that he had randomly selected a soccer-crazy place. Nor could he have guessed that this made it exactly the right fit for his daughter, and that she would turn out to be, as her high school coach Judi Croutier described it, “far and beyond the best player that’s ever come through here.”
In three years of high school soccer at Long Island’s powerhouse South Side High School in Rockville Centre, the happy-go-lucky and freakishly athletic Dunn won three state titles and lost a cumulative two games. (Her senior year, she scored a hat trick in the first 20 minutes of the championship and added a fourth goal for good measure.) She was recruited to the University of North Carolina by Anson Dorrance, the coach who mentored Mia Hamm back in the day, and by Dunn’s junior year, the Tar Heels were NCAA champions and she was college soccer’s MVP. In the 2012 Under-20 World Cup, she assisted on the tournament-winning goal. She was selected first overall by the Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League entry draft in 2014, and in 2015, after missing out on the World Cup, she earned the Golden Boot award and, you guessed it, another MVP.
Dunn’s presence has always been one of her great gifts. She is just so very there: on the ball, in your face, past your reach. When she plays, she is noteworthy for the same reasons a hummingbird or a shooting star catches the eye: their ceaseless movement, their transient thrill. Katie Starsia, one of Dunn’s South Side teammates who went on to play at the University of Virginia, said that in high school Dunn would stand around at practice and in warm-ups and do scissors and stepovers around the soccer ball. “And we would all say, swoopty-doopty!” Starsia said, as if she were calling Harlem Globetrotters play-by-play. “That was our word for the things she would do, the insane ways she would get through people. Swoopty-doopty.”
So when Dunn failed to make the World Cup team last summer, it was her rare absence that turned many heads. Dunn was in the car with her parents, Vincent and Rhonda, last April when Ellis gave her a call. “Uh, Crys, unfortunately we’re not going to take you to the World Cup,” Ellis said. For once, Dunn was not exactly where she wanted to be.
Some fans wrote it off as the cost of doing business, the downside of traveling among such elite company; not everyone can make the team. Others delved into criticism (Ellis, and U.S. Soccer, had messed up Dunn’s development!) or conspiracy (Dunn was left off the team to give courtesy spots to high-profile veterans!). But anyone watching had to wince in empathy when Dunn was asked, two weeks later, to come to California to train with the World Cup squad in place of the injured Tobin Heath.
“I’m kind of like the loner,” Dunn told the Washington Times, “sitting there and cheering them on.” She said that while everyone else ducked out for TV interviews and uniform distribution, she had no need. “But I’m a part of U.S. Soccer,” she said, “and for me it wasn’t an option to say no, so I was 100 percent all in.” After the U.S. beat Japan 5–2 to win the trophy, longtime team captain Abby Wambach gave Dunn a shout-out on TV, thanking everyone including the “players who didn’t make the cut right at the last second, [like] Crystal Dunn.” Dunn later said that at that moment, she stopped feeling sorry for herself.
“I don’t think you can react how she did without her personality,” said Paul Riley, who coached Dunn on the Albertson Fury club team while she was in high school and who is now the head coach of the Western New York Flash of the NWSL. “You would just shrivel and die. She didn’t shrivel and die.”
Instead, Dunn took the league by storm. “She was almost unstoppable, unplayable,” Riley recalled. It wasn’t just that she scored 15 goals, it was how she did it: outrunning defenders, or confusing them, and sometimes making them fall down. (She scored one goal by running directly at a goaltender who essentially panicked, coughed up the ball, and was toast.)
One of her goals in particular stood out: It came one day after the World Cup team had beaten China to advance to the tournament semifinal against Germany in Montreal. Back in Washington, D.C., against the Houston Dash, Dunn won a loose ball battle just outside the box, dribbling away as one Houston defender wiped out. She caused a second defender to overcommit and plant her foot as Dunn blew past. Dunn’s shot went by a third Houston player’s outstretched leg, over the goalie’s head, and ricocheted off the crossbar and into the net.
Dunn is tiny, and typically she celebrates a goal by run-jump-straddling a teammate like a child reuniting with a favorite uncle or aunt. This time, though, she just stopped and raised her arms like Rocky: tired, kinda beaten-down, but victorious nonetheless.
Looking at the footage of Dunn’s 2015 season, you’d be forgiven for being surprised to hear that for a long time, she was considered a defender. “What position does she play?” should not be a difficult question for a coach to answer, but for Dunn’s coaches, it often is. If there’s one thing that has long distinguished Dunn from just about any of her peers, it’s the degree to which she has moved around the field throughout her career. She’s played attacking midfielder, and center fullback, and outside striker, and she’s done so at the elite level.
Stengel, who competed against Dunn in college before playing with her in the NWSL, has vivid memories of a college match from their junior NCAA season. “We played at UNC,” said the former Wake Forest striker. “She started out at center back.” Stengel and Dunn had marked each other since their freshman seasons. In this particular game Stengel struck first, scoring to give Wake Forest a 1–0 lead at halftime.
“So Anson [Dorrance] put her in midfield,” Stengel said. “She started dominating. Within two minutes she got a shot on goal. Then they moved her up top and she must have created at least five chances in the last two minutes. We were all just like, Please, just let this game end, so we can just win and get out of here. She just took over wherever she was.”
As a child she had the sort of raw athleticism that rendered concepts like “positioning” and “tactics” mostly meaningless. “She was just a physical specimen when she was younger,” said Riley. “One thing that happens to American players is that, when they’re so athletic, they can get away with it. She was one of those players that didn’t want to get away with it, who wanted to improve game in and game out.”
Ask a number of her coaches where Dunn belongs on the field and you’ll get a number of different answers.
“She kind of played a little bit of everything for us,” said her high school coach Croutier, who added it was not unusual for Dunn to be triple-teamed.
“I’ve never had one player like her at this level that can play literally any position,” Riley said.
“Why would you ever have a player with this extraordinary dribbling ability as your center back?” UNC’s Dorrance asked in 2012, the same year Dunn was listed as a defender for the U-20 World Cup. But even he admitted doing so. “We have all these issues in the back, so we dropped her right in the middle of the defense,” he said. “And of course she corrected them immediately.” While at UNC, Dunn won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors her freshman and junior seasons. She also, in a playoff game against BYU, scored the golden goal in double overtime to send the Tar Heels to the College Cup semifinals, which they won. Her senior year, she was named the ACC’s best offensive player.
Dunn’s willingness to play anywhere on the field is mostly an asset — particularly in the Olympics, where rosters are limited to 18 and flexibility is a virtue — but sometimes it’s hard not to wonder whether her accommodations get taken a bit for granted, or whether she would have been better served if she wasn’t always moving around.
Dunn and her coaches have said that they’ve been working, lately, on her tactical skills. The hope is that this time, she might stay in one place so she can enact them. “That’s tough,” said Jim Gabarra, a former member of the men’s national team (and 1988 Olympian) who now coaches the Spirit. “She’s so versatile, she’s almost better in a less structured role. I don’t think she should be pinned down to one position. She’s tougher to defend if she’s got some freedom.”
The USWNT’s next game, against France on Saturday, is the sort of matchup that could favor Dunn’s speed, athleticism, and creativity, and the starting lineup card is much anticipated. Whether she has earned a starting role or will have to settle for occasional time off the bench remains to be seen. But ever since she was a girl, a little bit of Dunn has always gone a long way.
When Dunn was a high school freshman, Starsia remembered, she came to a preseason captain’s practice and stood out “oh my gosh, immediately.” Dunn seemed to be holding back, even: “You could almost tell that she didn’t want to show off, but her even operating at 50 percent was like, a head and a foot ahead of everybody,” Starsia said.
She paused and tried to explain further.
“This is going to sound so weird,” Starsia said, “but whenever she was there, it was just like — her presence was known.” All Dunn’s fans want is for the same thing to be true in Rio, and long after.