Crystal Dunn had been a lock to make the 2019 World Cup roster for some time before she was officially named to the squad last week.
The versatile speedster has settled in as the U.S. women’s national team’s starting left back over the last year, making her spot on the 23-player team a mere formality.
But when I present her with this premise, she quickly interrupts.
“You never know,” Dunn interjects.
It’s hard to blame her for this stance. After all, Dunn was famously the last person cut from the U.S. World Cup roster in 2015, and had to watch on as her teammates went all the way and lifted the trophy in Canada.
Four years later, Dunn has gone from fringe player to one of the most valuable members of the USWNT. Long known as a jack-of-all-trades, the 26-year-old has become the kind of attacking fullback that head coach Jill Ellis craves in her 4-3-3 system.
Learning to embrace her versatility and fill in wherever the team requires has led to the disappointment of 2015 vanishing into the background for Dunn.
“I’ve been waiting four years for this,” Dunn said.
“I just feel like I’ve come full circle so for me, getting that phone call just meant so much and obviously going to my first World Cup is really exciting.”
That phone call was likely extra gratifying for Ellis, who couldn’t have asked for a much better response to a crushing disappointment than the one she’s received from Dunn in the intervening four years.
“I think Crystal is probably the most versatile player that I’ve had to date with this group of players,” Ellis said earlier this month.
“She can play any line, usually a player moves across lines or maybe two lines but Crystal has proven to me that she’s adept at playing any line and that’s what makes her so special.”
Dunn admits that she was reluctant to embrace her versatility earlier in her career, but has now become much more comfortable with being seen as a player who can fill in almost anywhere.
“I’ve played a lot of positions since four years ago,” Dunn said. “I think I’ve just become a complete player and I’m now more OK with the fact that I am this versatile player.
“It scared me a bit four years ago where I felt I just didn't know what was expected of me, what I really wanted to accomplish on the field, and I think now it’s my identity.”
Ellis is known for moving her players around the field, with several USWNT players expected to play multiple positions at the World Cup this summer. The U.S. boss believes that positional fluidity is a defining feature of the modern game, pointing to the hugely successful formula that Pep Guardiola has put in place at Manchester City.
“Now the positions are so fluid and interchangeable that players aren’t locked or rigid,” Ellis said.
“Suddenly you see Man City, you see the outside backs playing in the midfield so it’s more about the understanding of players knowing when they’re in that position, what’s the role of that position, and we’ve had a lot of time to work on that.”
In that sense, Dunn is the prototypical modern player, featuring as an outside back for the U.S. but at the same time, playing an attacking midfield role for her club side North Carolina Courage.
“It’s a testament to how well she understands the game and the quality of player she is because it’s very difficult to do that, to constantly have to change positions,” U.S. winger Megan Rapinoe said earlier this year.
“You’re trying to be great at one thing and then to be switched to another, it’s difficult. I think she’s embraced it first of all, I don’t think you can do it if you’re going to pissed about it the whole time.
“[She has a] willingness to do whatever the team needs first and foremost.”
That willingness has led to Dunn being a rock-solid piece of the USWNT core, in sharp contrast to where she was four years ago.
Unfortunately, there are players now who are in the unenviable position Dunn was in 2015. One of them is her club teammate McCall Zerboni, who was one of the last players cut from this year’s World Cup squad.
Dunn naturally reached out to Zerboni after the news came down. If there's anyone who has shown how to overcome such a crushing blow, it's Dunn.
“I had a good conversation with McCall, I sent her a nice message,” Dunn said. “Obviously I’ve been in a similar boat where it’s good to give them a bit of space but then also let them know that you’re thinking of them.
“I think my main message to her was, what happened to me four years ago didn’t break me and I know that this isn’t going to break her.”