Crystal Dunn saved her best performance in her adopted position for the biggest stage as the U.S. women's national team booked their place in the Women's World Cup semi-final at the expense of France.
Going into Friday night’s World Cup quarter-final, it was clear that Les Bleues would target Dunn on the left side of the American defense.
Dunn has played primarily as an attacking midfielder during her career, and still does so at the club level. Meanwhile, France’s Kadidiatou Diani had been her side’s most dangerous attacking option all tournament from the right flank. France’s plan was clear from the off: target Dunn at left back early and often.
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But Dunn, along with the rest of the USWNT defense, produced a sterling performance in a pressure-packed atmosphere in Paris, as Megan Rapinoe’s brace gave the USWNT a 2-1 win to see them into the last four.
Diani got Dunn isolated on several occasions but the makeshift U.S. left-back held her own, using every tool she had available. She used her speed to catch up to Diani and produce a heroic tackle on one occasion, while her strength and guile saw her dispossess the France star on several others.
“I think Dunny was just on point,” U.S. head coach Jill Ellis said after the game. “I chatted with her a couple days ago and just said, ‘Dunny you’ve grown so much, you are so ready for this moment.’ And I thought she stepped up big time.”
The position change hasn’t always been easy for Dunn, who at times still shows her inexperience at left back. But she is trying to remain philosophical about her new spot with the USWNT.
“It is challenging but me stepping into a new position on the field, I try not to overthink,” Dunn said earlier in the World Cup.
“I just think of myself as a footballer. I’m just playing and trying to impact the game from a different angle of the field is what I always say.”
Dunn’s performance on Friday was only part of the story for the U.S. back line, who all played their part in shutting down a high-powered France attack.
Kelley O’Hara helped neutralize Eugenie Le Sommer on the opposite side of Dunn, while Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper were solid at center back. And in goal Alyssa Naeher, who has been the subject of plenty of doubts, was flawless.
Naeher was especially pleased by Sauerbrunn’s performance after the pair each made a mistake on Spain’s goal in the round of 16.
“I had no doubt she was going to come back even stronger from that,” Naeher said.
“She proved that tonight, she’s making big-time stops and big-time tackles and we know exactly what we’re going to get from her. She’s our leader back there.”
But the most impressive performance belonged to Dunn, who came in prepared to face her toughest test yet and rose to the challenge.
“She had watched film, she’d studied, she’s very diligent,” Ellis said. “Dunny was as good as I’ve seen her.”