Dealing with the twists and turns of this year requires one to be flexible, philosophical and adaptable. It requires someone who can be thrust into an unexpected situation and thrive. It requires someone with experience dealing with change.
Basically, it requires someone like Dunn.
Dunn’s year has been filled with unexpected developments, adding to a career that is rapidly becoming defined by the 28-year-old’s response to the next plot twist.
Would the NWSL’s top scorer and MVP in 2015 believe she would miss the U.S. World Cup team that year, but then start every game as a makeshift left-back four years later?
Would the established star in 2020 believe a global pandemic would put a halt to her burgeoning league and her Olympic dreams?
Would she believe she’d be thrust into the cauldron of a nationwide racial reckoning when her league did return?
“I think if I learned anything about this year it was that you can’t really plan anything,” Dunn tells Goal after being named in this year’s Goal 50 list of the best players in world football from last season.
This is the attitude Dunn takes with her as 2020 mercifully enters its final months. There is, however, one major aspect of Dunn’s life where she has been able to add a welcome measure of certitude.
Last month, Dunn forced a trade through from the North Carolina Courage to the Portland Thorns – the club where her husband, Pierre Soubrier, has been serving as head athletic trainer.
“I think distance is one thing but when you’re living coast to coast, it is a whole other world of distance,” Dunn said.
The move, Dunn said, had been in the works for months. After starting her career with the intention of putting down roots, Portland will be her fourth team.
“When I first stepped into NWSL I thought I’d be a player that stays on one team,” Dunn said on a call with reporters after the trade.
“I have been on this path of dealing with unexpected things. I play multiple positions, I am definitely adaptable at all times and this was an opportunity for me to be able to take control over my career.”
Dunn’s final games with the Courage ended up coming in the NWSL Challenge Cup this summer. As the NWSL became the first major American sports league to return amid the pandemic, a racial reckoning had erupted all over the country stemming from the death of George Floyd – a black man killed by a white police officer in Minnesota.
As one of the league’s most prominent black players, Dunn was suddenly thrust into an unexpected position as spokeswoman – for the public as well as for her fellow players around the league.
“All the racial issues that we are experiencing just really was the tipping point for this year,” Dunn said.
“It’s no secret, soccer is a predominantly white sport. Just speaking with a lot of the black players in the NWSL, we have a lot of shared experiences.
“Even though we are individuals and we have come from different places, we all have experienced feeling like you are always the only one. This year really came down to people having hard conversations and just sharing stories.”
Through those stories and sharing her experiences with the public at large, Dunn believes that progress is being made.
“That’s actually been what’s really cool about this year though is that people are no longer standing for silence,” Dunn said. “There’s no neutrality anymore. You’re either really against racism or you’re helping it.”
After the Challenge Cup, Dunn decided to opt out of the fall series – a four-game set of friendlies involving all nine NWSL teams. After playing non-stop since her career started, Dunn said she needed a moment to catch her breath.
“I have been going full throttle for about seven years now, and I never really get to take time for myself,” Dunn said. “Playing four more games is obviously really great and it’s beneficial, but I think taking this time to really work and train individually also has a lot of benefits.”
With a long offseason between Dunn and her Thorns debut, she can now focus on her individual training and on the USWNT (Dunn said that unlike many of her U.S. team-mates, she won’t seek a short-term move to Europe) as they look ahead to the Olympics next summer.
The Tokyo games are, for now at least, set for July after being delayed by a year, but how – and if – the tournament will proceed is anyone’s guess.
All the USWNT can do is prepare as if the Olympics are happening and thankfully, October saw them reunite for a training camp – the first time the team had gathered since March.
Dunn admits the postponement of the Olympics was a blow after she staked her claim as the USWNT’s first-choice left-back with a strong 2019 World Cup at a position she is still learning.
“All of a sudden, it gets postponed and you’re like, ‘Oh man, I felt in form, I felt really good and now I have to wait another year to try and make a push and make this roster,’” Dunn said.
For now, Dunn is entrenched at left-back with the U.S., but it has always seemed a matter of when, not if, she will be deployed in her more natural attacking midfield slot.
And head coach Vlatko Andonovski is clear that Dunn should not get too comfortable at any single position.
“Right now Crystal is listed as a defender and that’s where we see her but I don’t want to exclude anything,” Andonovski said last month. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next camp or the camps to come or in games.”
How 2021 will unfold on and off the pitch for Dunn is still an open question, but whatever comes her way, there is no doubt that one of the game’s most adabtable players will be ready.