Crystal Dunn had 23 teammates and more than 35,000 fans at Ford Field Thursday night, but in one important way, she was all alone.
As the World Cup champions rolled into Detroit as part of their victory tour, Dunn was the outsider. Brought into the team as a replacement for the injured Megan Rapinoe, the match with Haiti would be the first time she had played for the national team since she was one of the last two players cut from the final roster for the tournament in Canada.
On a night designed to celebrate the team that had won soccer’s biggest trophy, she was the only one in American blue that had never touched it. Even in the pre-game introductions, while her 23 teammates (including Rapinoe) were introduced as World Cup champions, she was “one of the World Cup team’s alternates”.
Dunn did everything she could against Haiti to make sure that never happens again. She started the game at left wing, rather than her previous position of left back, and provided two assists with pinpoint crosses for Carli Lloyd and Christen Press to knock home. As the half progressed, she also started running at the Haitian defense from the wing, nearly scoring once and providing multiple scoring opportunities.
Dunn thought her success on the flank came from spending the NWSL season with the Washington Spirit, where she won the Golden Boot with 15 goals.
“When I didn’t make the World Cup roster, I knew I had to break my game back down to its basics and get better at everything,” she said after the 5-0 win over Haiti. “The NWSL was the perfect platform for me to do it, and the most important part was that I got to play the style where I feel the most natural. At heart, I’m a midfielder and always have been, and that’s why it felt so good to get a chance with the national team to play in front of goal.”
U.S. coach Jill Ellis was so impressed with Dunn’s first-half performance that she gave her a new position for the second half, playing her up top as a second forward alongside Alex Morgan – and later Abby Wambach – with Lloyd playing just behind them.
“This was a new side of Crystal, and I think the time in the NWSL really helped her,” Ellis said. “When she was with us in camp, she still saw herself as a young player in a camp full of stars, and players in that situation tend to defer to the bigger names.
“She got to go to the NWSL while we were in Canada and get some experience at being the go-to player on a team, and it has really boosted her confidence. Instead of giving up the ball, she’s turning and running at people.”
She did more of that in the second half. Playing in the middle of the field, she was nearly impossible for the young Haitian defense to stop. Only sloppy finishing – a problem throughout the game on Ford Field’s FieldTurf surface – kept the Americans from approaching double figures and Dunn from picking another two or three assists.
In injury time, she definitely showed that she is no longer willing to defer to the team’s stars, as she lept in front of Wambach to head in Heather O’Reilly’s cross for her first national-team goal.
“That was an amazing moment,” she said. “To play with this team again, in front of 35,000 fans, and score my first goal. I’ll never forget this.”
The performance didn’t surprise any of her teammates, either.
“That’s what we’ve always wanted Crystal to do for us,” said Lloyd, who had a hat trick in the win. “Everyone in our camp knows what a great player she can be, but she needed to find the confidence to show all of it on the field. Tonight, she did that, and we’re all thrilled for her.”
Dunn knows that her great performance was against a Haitian national team that is in a long-term building process around players that are currently 16-18 years old, but it was the way she played that will help her in the future.
“That’s the Crystal we have been waiting to see,” Ellis said.