An ‘authentic’ Crystal Dunn won’t hide her ‘massive burden’ as USWNT fullback. And that’s OK
Crystal Dunn is a peerless talent who recently spoke from her heart about playing a position she doesn't prefer, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Vlatko Andonovski is the coach of a U.S. women's national team who needs Dunn to play this undesirable position, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, either.
So it is somewhat perplexing that Dunn's status as the USWNT's starting left back has become a subject of mild controversy several years after she first seized the role, and several months before her second World Cup.
Dunn rose through soccer's ranks as a creative midfielder, and that's what she's been for some of the world's most successful clubs. By virtue of her versatility, though, and out of USWNT necessity, she broke into the national team as a fullback. She has spent the last half-decade constantly toggling her soccer brain between two very different roles and headspaces, and that's hard. Really hard.
So Dunn, 30, said as much when she sat down with a GQ reporter for a wide-ranging profile. She spoke honestly, emotionally and introspectively about how "it’s been a massive burden on me to switch who I am." She paused to cry at one point.
“I step into [USWNT] camp, and I feel like I lose a part of myself," she told GQ. "I no longer get to be Crystal who scores goals, assists, is this attacking player. I step into an environment where I have to be world-class in a position that I don't think is my best position. But I’ve owned it. I’ve made it my own, and I’ve tried to create it in my most authentic way. But I don’t love it."
She said those words and more in November. They were published on Friday, smack-dab in the middle of the SheBelieves Cup. So of course, on Saturday, Andonovski was asked about them — four times.
And he did what any reasonable coach would do. Although he got a bit edgy, he didn't blame Dunn for feeling what she's feeling, nor for expressing herself. He simply explained that, whereas fullback is the USWNT's position of gravest need, its midfield is rather crowded.
"She can compete as a midfielder," Andonovski said of Dunn, in response to the second of four questions. "But she has to compete with Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan, and Catarina Macario when she comes [back from injury] as well. So, if she doesn't feel comfortable playing left back, or she doesn't want to be a left back, nobody's forced to play in any position. As a left back, she's probably one of the best left backs in the world. As a midfielder, she has pretty stiff competition in her position."
He was later asked whether he could see Dunn as an option on the wing, and reiterated: "I mean, any player can compete at any position. I would be open to anything. But if I was player on the national team right now, Mallory Swanson is probably the last player that I would want to compete against."
Swanson (née Pugh) has scored five goals in three 2023 games, and the USWNT's depth chart at winger is overflowing. Horan and Lavelle are probably its two most solidified starters as the two most advanced midfielders in Andonovski's 4-3-3. So, as has been the case for years now, Dunn's VORP — her value relative to replacements — is clearly highest at fullback.
Is that unfortunate?
Did former U.S. coach Jill Ellis hinder Dunn's career by pigeonholing her as a fullback, rather than giving her a runway in midfield?
Probably. It was short-term strategizing that arguably came with long-term costs — for Dunn, and perhaps for the team.
But it can't be undone. The window for rehashed debate ended months, perhaps years ago. Only an elite young left back could reopen it and liberate Dunn. Until and unless that happens, she is a part-time fullback.
And she knows this. She's accepted it. “I step into this environment, I know exactly what my role is," she told reporters in Nashville shortly after Andonovski spoke, ahead of the USWNT's Sunday showdown with Japan (3:30 p.m. ET, TNT, HBO Max, Universo, Peacock).
Then she explained the most important point of all. Never once has she said, "Hey, I am not happy." Her GQ interview had provided a window into "how I feel internally at times," she said Saturday. "And it’s OK to express that." In fact, it's laudable. It's what we want from every athlete, from every public figure. They have no obligation to bare their soul to the media or public; it's a privilege when they do.
"It doesn’t mean that I’m trying to cause havoc or a stir or anything like that," Dunn clarified.
Andonovski said he hadn't even seen Dunn's comments. "I seriously don't read media," he said. As long as he doesn't step out of line, pull Dunn aside and tell her to watch her words, there is no controversy here, no drama.
"At the end of the day, it’s really just being authentic," Dunn said. She hopes that her openness about the daily challenges she confronts will help others who someday face similar ones, and normalize the struggle.
And of course: “It’s a blessing and such an honor to be in this environment," Dunn said of her place on the national team. She regularly shares her appreciation and excitement with teammates and Andonovski. "And I’d never take that for granted. And so I think that that is the biggest message here. ... I love this team and I’m always willing to do whatever it takes. But, just sharing my most authentic parts of me is who I’m always going to be.”