Crystal Dunn wants you to know her face and hear her voice.
If you follow soccer, you probably should pay attention to her anyway. She’s the attacker-turned-defender who has been playing out of position at left-back for the U.S. women’s national team in recent years — and doing it well enough to come in at No. 6 on ESPN FC’s Women’s Rank. If the USWNT manages to medal in the Tokyo Olympics, Dunn will almost certainly play a key role on both sides of the ball.
Yet for all her success at the top level — including a World Cup trophy in 2019, 119 international appearances and two NWSL championships — she hasn’t often found the spotlight. The attention has always been reserved for her teammates further up the pitch, and it really hit her after winning the World Cup: she felt invisible.
“I’m a veteran on the national team and still I feel like I’m fighting to get my face out there and my representation out there,” Dunn told ESPN before the USWNT’s Olympic campaign started. “And if I’m feeling that way, that means a whole lot of Black women coming up are feeling that way.”
To be clear, Dunn said it’s not about her. It’s about the little girls who look like her — the little girls who may have a story similar to Dunn’s growing up.
When Dunn’s parents, Vincent and Rhonda, decided to relocate from Queens, New York, they had the usual checklist: a good school system, a manageable commute into the city, a safe place for their kids to grow up. But when they chose Rockville Centre on Long Island and moved Crystal there as a toddler, it was an act of serendipity.
“We’ve spoken about this,” Crystal’s father, Vincent, told ESPN. “We were looking at a couple different towns nearby, and had we stayed in Queens and never ventured into Long Island or selected a different town than Rockville Centre, there is a very good chance Crystal would not have played soccer. We just stumbled onto a place that was a big soccer town.”
Dunn played soccer growing up just because that’s what kids did in Rockville Centre — her parents knew nothing about the sport, and no one had to push her. Some friends tried to recruit her to play lacrosse, but the women’s version of the sport didn’t allow checking, so she wasn’t interested. She made the basketball team when her friends encouraged her to try out, but then her friends didn’t make the cut. Soccer was the one she always gravitated toward on her own.
But, at the same time, no one on her teams looked like her. As Dunn puts it: “I feel like I’ve found my identity at a young age in this sport, but that doesn’t mean along the way it didn’t feel lonely.”
“I was very aware of it from a young age, but my parents always instilled so much confidence in me,” Dunn said of being the only Black girl on her team. “They said, ‘Don’t let anyone deter you from what you want to do. If playing soccer makes you happy, don’t feel any type of way because you may look different from everybody. You have to follow your heart, follow your dreams.’ I think my parents telling me that from a young age really prepared me for the remainder of my career because it’s not like I’ve played on many teams with so many of us on it.”
Indeed, not all that much has changed in the roughly two decades since the 29-year-old Dunn went from a running around in an oversized AYSO shirt to playing in the Olympics. For all the perceived diversity within soccer as a global sport, Dunn has often been one of the only Black women on her teams.
Rather than just accept her experience as the standard for little girls who look like her, Dunn is trying to change that.
Late last year, she helped launch the Black Women’s Player Collective, an organization that that allows NWSL players like Dunn to turn their experience into action. The group, which includes non-Black allies, has collaborated on initiatives like installing mini soccer pitches in underserved communities — including with Black Players for Change, although the two causes are not affiliated — and has more plans in the works.
But that’s not all. Dunn is also hoping to spark that change just by unabashedly being herself, being the most Crystal Dunn she can possibly be. That means, for the first time in her career, being completely honest without holding back.
After all, for years she was a player who kept her head down and worked hard without saying much. Even when reporters asked her a question regarding a topic she’d love to vent about — like her frustration with being shoehorned as a defender — she gave the polite, non-controversial response.
No more, she said.
“It’s harder to advocate for yourself and to feel like you can put yourself out there when you are a rookie or when you are someone who is young and stepping into a new space,” Dunn said. “I’m 11 years on the national team now, over a hundred caps, and I now feel like I’m in a position to advocate more and push for more, especially for diversity in the sport, because I’ve reached a level that I feel like I can now ask for those things.”
Her place on the USWNT has been more settled in the past couple years than ever as the USWNT’s only reliable solution at left-back for the way the team wants to play. She’s also been settled for her club, signing a three-year-deal this year with the Portland Thorns, where she’s a go-to starter as an attacking midfielder, which allowed her to be in Oregon full-time with her husband, an athletic trainer for the Thorns.
Dunn is still the first one to start a dance party in the locker room and joke around during training sessions. Her social media is filled with photos of her cats and chickens, and she jokes that in Japan she’s more interested getting updates about them than talking to her husband. “Every day I get videos — I need proof of life,” she joked from Japan. But she’s allowed a more serious side to emerge.
Her father said it’s part of a “maturation” and personal growth he’s seen from his daughter more recently. “She’s not afraid to speak her mind, which has been a big difference over the last couple years,” he said.
So, feeling more settled means it’s easier for Dunn to be honest about everything, from feeling marginalized as a Black woman to what she really thinks about playing left-back amid the glowing headlines about her versatility. Her stock answer in the past was always that she just wants to help the team. That’s not a lie, but there’s more to it than that.
“I think I just got tired one day — like, do people not realize what I actually have to go through?” Dunn said with a laugh.
First of all, it’s actually much harder than Dunn makes it look to switch positions constantly, moving from attacking midfield into the backline.
“It is challenging to leave playing as an attacker in the past and turn that off, and then step into the national team, on the biggest stage, and be asked to be the world’s best outside-back,” Dunn said. “I don’t think people understand that.”
But also, as Dunn embraces being her authentic self, she can’t help but feel like a piece of her often gets left behind as a full-back.
“I’m always hopeful that I get to move a little bit further up the pitch,” Dunn said. “What I’ve been trying to do, which has helped me find joy as an outside-back, is feeling like I can add my flair to the position. No one can play any position the same way, and yes, my responsibilities are to stay connected to the back line and defend, but once I have the green light to go forward, I get to be Crystal Dunn.”
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When Sweden defeated the USWNT to open the Olympics, they did it in part by pinning Dunn back and isolating from her teammates so she was unable to work her magic. The secret about Dunn’s way of playing full-back is out, and as the USWNT embarks on the knockout round of the tournament, starting with Friday’s quarterfinal against Netherlands, more teams will try to contain her.
“The fact that she’s a super good defender but also can break teams down on the attacking side is a quality that not many players in the world have, whether it’s a male or female team, USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski said earlier this month. “Not many players have the ability to change personalities and the way they play as they move up the field. Crystal has the ability to literally change her profile three times in one attack. She starts in the buildup as a left full-back, and then changes her personality or profile and plays as a midfielder as we’re moving up. And then we’ll see her ending up in one-v-one action finishing with a cross or a shot, which is a forward profile.
“That’s something that makes her special, and makes her one of the best in the world.”
Dunn is ultra competitive and hates losing, just as you might expect from an elite athlete. But whether or not she can help lead the USWNT to its fifth gold medal, just by being out there on the field, she’s fulfilling her purpose.
After all, her most memorable encounter with a fan was at an airport when she noticed the gaze of a young Black girl. Dunn said hi and introduced herself, and the girl told her she already knew who she was — Dunn had inspired the girl to take up playing soccer. The power of that moment has never left.
“It really makes me feel like this is why I play the game,” Dunn said. “Everyone’s motivated by so many different reasons to stay in the sport, and even the way I got into the sport was just about the love of the game — no one forced me — and even when I was the only one that looked like me, I stayed. So, if I can inspire anyone who looks like me to feel comfortable, I feel like that’s exactly what I need to do.”