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Crystal Dunn joined Chelsea from Washington Spirit for the start of the 2017 spring season after lighting up the American leagues. A lively and versatile player, she has experience of playing in defence or midfield, and before joining Chelsea she was excelling up front or out wide.
The New Yorker turned professional in 2014 after a glittering college career and was the first draft pick in her native National Women’s Soccer League. She won the NWSL Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player awards in 2015, before helping lead the Spirit to the NWSL final and finishing runner-up to the US Soccer Female Player of the Year in 2016.
Dunn was already familiar with some of Chelsea’s England contingent after establishing herself with the US national team in the build-up to the Rio Olympics, memorably blasting a winning goal against the Lionesses into the top corner at the 2016 SheBelieves Cup.
By the time she joined Chelsea, her goal tally for the Stars and Stripes had reached 18 goals in 45 appearances. Scoring an equaliser from close range in an Olympic group-stage meeting with Colombia last summer is one of the highlights of her international career.
FRISCO, Texas — The National Soccer Hall of Fame Museum is currently under construction at one end of Toyota Stadium. At this rate, they may want to let Crystal Dunn pick out where to display her cleats.
At the very least, someone needs to get this place an National Women’s Soccer League team she can play for once she returns from a professional adventure abroad.
Playing for her country for the first time since taking the field at the club level for Chelsea in England’s top division, Dunn scored twice in the first half Thursday to propel the United States to a 4-0 win against Russia.
“I think it’s important for all of us to feel like we played our role and played it to the best of our ability,” Dunn said. “For me, I had a great game, I think. It was all to my teammates supplying me the ball and feeding off me.”
In 45 career appearances for the national team in other venues, Dunn has scored 12 goals. That’s a healthy return on the minutes for a young player who won’t turn 25 until this summer, who has been asked to play in a variety of attacking roles and has seen time as both a starter and a reserve.
But in four appearances in this stadium on the outskirts of Dallas, she has scored eight goals.
That is Hall of Fame output — the kind of output that’s difficult to keep off the field.
“I was telling the girls, ‘We need to come to Texas once a year for the rest of my career,'” Dunn said.
On a night when the opponent offered little resistance, Dunn and the Americans had all the answers. But Dunn’s performance will create a beguiling question that coach Jill Ellis will have to face between now and the next World Cup.
Where and how much should Dunn play? And as a corollary, does one part of the answer dictate the other?
Dunn, at one point, played center back in an Under-20 World Cup and led North Carolina to an NCAA title as an attacking midfielder. Her versatility is both a blessing and a curse, and that is nothing new. But her time with the national team has been a shuttle between playing in the No. 9 role and playing in a wide position.
“It’s very hard for me to get settled in a position, I feel like, because I’m moved probably the next camp or two,” Dunn said. “But for me, I like playing the [No. 9 role]. I’m playing it currently for Chelsea, and I feel like for the last 2½ months, I’ve gotten really comfortable there. And I feel like on the field today, I was able to find my teammates and have support around me.”
Starting as the No. 9, the tip of the spear ahead of Carli Lloyd, Dunn looked composed in her finishes.
She nearly helped get the United States on the scoreboard in the first minute when she pushed down the left side against a defense that couldn’t handle her speed from the start and fed the ball into a position for Rose Lavelle, whose shot went wide. Dunn left nothing to chance with her own opportunity in the 10th minute, played in by a Lloyd pass. At full stride pulling away from defenders, she shot low across the face of the goal for a 1-0 lead.
I like playing the [No. 9 role]. I’m playing it currently for Chelsea, and I feel like for the last 2 1/2 months, I’ve gotten really comfortable there.Crystal Dunn
Dunn constantly threatened to break Russia’s back line in the first half despite constantly finding the wrong side of the offside flag. After Allie Long headed home the first of her two goals in the 18th minute, Dunn was back at it minutes before halftime when Anna Cholovyaga attempted to settle a high bouncing ball, then left herself exposed when the control went awry. Dunn pounced on the loose ball outside of the 18-yard box, drove into the box and again scored on a composed finish to the far post.
“She’s proven productive in both positions,” Ellis said. “What I sort of committed to right now is I want to see her in the middle of the park as much as possible. Just because of her skill set. She can turn, she’s got pace to get in behind, likes to come off the line for the ball and she finds the back of the net. She’s pretty mobile up there, in terms of her movement laterally and vertically.
“That’s where I want to see her, is central at this point. She’s playing there for Chelsea. So in my head, yeah, I committed to having a look at her there more consistently than we have in the past.”
That is partly a luxury Ellis is afforded thanks to the play of Lavelle and Mallory Pugh in wide space, Lavelle again a revelation for the second time in three career starts for the national team.
All the same, there was Dunn wide right at the start of the second, shifted over when Alex Morgan entered the game as a substitute. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see Dunn’s eyebrows lift a little when asked if the plan to focus on playing her centrally had been shared.
“This is news to me,” Dunn said. “I think throughout my career I’ve always felt like I’m ready for anything. So whether she does truly believe she’s going to leave me there or play me somewhere else, I think I just respond to whatever [is] given.”
Dunn’s positioning on the field is among the questions Ellis needs to answer during games like these, painfully in cases like the 3-0 loss to France, one of Europe’s best, or more joyously here against Europe’s rest. While this level of international soccer is a results-driven business, Ellis still needs the flexibility for an almost developmental approach for at least the rest of this year leading up to the next World Cup.
That is partially why midfielder Sam Mewis has played more minutes than anyone but Becky Sauerbrunn this season. It’s why the United States reverted to a back line of four defenders, not the shame of the goals conceded against France with a back line of three. (After all, that same back line held Germany scoreless.) Ellis needed to see that formation against elite competition, and she did.
So where will Dunn play in 2019? Only time will tell. But it’s pretty clear where she needs to play when the team comes to Toyota Stadium.