Three summers ago, Crystal Dunn was on top of the world.
The United States U-20 women’s national team had made history by defeating Germany for its historic third FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup title and Dunn, who recorded three assists and played every minute on defense, had emerged as one of the country’s top young players.
Now Dunn is on top of the NWSL leader board in goals scored with 12 tallies this season and given last weekend’s historic hat trick is showing no signs of slowing up.
But while things have certainly gone well for the first overall pick in the 2014 NWSL draft from then to now, there are times in between where they have not.
Lets back track slightly to July 5 at BC Place in Vancouver, Canada, where the U.S. senior national team had just made history by winning its third World Cup title.
Carli Lloyd, who set the world a blaze with her first half hat-trick, could be seen crouching on the ground, hands fist pumping towards the sky while her face expressed a mixture of disbelief, jubilation and solace. Dunn’s U-20 teammates Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston had upgraded from kissing the U-20 trophy to the actual World Cup trophy itself.
But among the post whistle pandemonium, trophy celebrations and rain of golden confetti, Dunn was nowhere to be found.
Instead, the then-22-year-old was in a room by herself, feet kicked up, as one of the record 26.7 million American viewers watching in awe as the U.S. celebrated its first title since 1999.
And while she expressed how elated she was to see her teammates’ triumph, how Lloyd’s hat-trick came as no surprise, and how happy she was to see Johnston and Brian contributing in big roles, this World Cup will also remind her of one of her biggest lows: being one of the final cuts from the national team roster.
“I don’t think I cried that day,” Dunn said recalling when head coach Jill Ellis broke the news to her. “I think I waited a couple of days and got pretty emotional, and then of course when I knew they were going to announce it, I remember turning my phone off and I think I took a nap. Then I woke up and turned my phone back on and everyone was blowing my phone up and there was a lot of love, a lot of support and it was overwhelming at first.”
So overwhelming in fact that it took about a week or two after the announcement before her emotions finally began to settle in.
From there, accustomed to the her new reality, it was time for Dunn to figure out what approach she should take for the next few months. Would she continue to feel bad for herself about not making the roster? Or make the most out of the situation by playing well with her club team the Washington Spirit?
“I’m one of those people that I think everything happens for a reason,” Dunn said. “I wasn’t going to sit and sulk.”
She didn’t take long. Four days after the news broke, Dunn tallied her first goal of the season in her club’s home opener.
The following week, Dunn scored two first-half goals in an eventual, 3-1, thrashing over Sky Blue FC in Piscataway, New Jersey, against a defense featuring two national team defenders in Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara.
And now, Dunn leads the league with 12 goals in 14 games – 13 if you count only the games after she was cut from the national team.
So what caused this sudden burst in production from the second-year pro that tallied just three assists in 21 games last season?
Many point to Dunn playing with a chip on her shoulder trying to prove a point to Ellis, a belief some felt was reinforced following a vague tweet sent from Dunn following her game against FC Kansas City, although she has refuted that claim.
That doesn’t mean Dunn disagrees with the analogy, there’s just more to it.
“A lot of people are like, ‘oh, you know you’re playing well because you’re pissed off,’ and I’m like maybe that’s part of it but another part of it is that I just feel good about how I’m playing,” Dunn said. “I’m in a good environment and I’m just, I’m happy and I think when you’re not in a good mood and you’re not really confident in yourself it’s just not going to work out for you in the end and that’s what I’ve learned over the last four or five months is that you got to be happy.”
A big role in Dunn’s positive morale has been maintaining her fitness.
After an injury-riddled first season, the first overall pick in the 2014 NWSL draft has already logged over 1,000 minutes and said slight changes in dieting, hydrating and icing more after games have made a huge difference.
Another difference has been in her position on the field.
Known mostly as a defender but a midfielder at heart, Dunn is playing as a true forward for the first time in her career and thriving as well as filling the goal-scoring void left by England forward Jodie Taylor. It’s a role Dunn expects to continue with the Spirit as the club continues to climb up the league standings—Washington currently sit in third place with a five point cushion over fifth.
As for the national team, Dunn remains unsure where she fits.
The expected departures of some of the older players on the team and an unexpected international retirement from midfielder Lauren Holiday has left spots up for grabs for some of the younger players.
But Dunn, whose love and passion for the sport was never motivated by one day playing for the national team, said her focus is taking it one day at a time and not focusing too much on the long-term future.
“For me, I don’t think my time with the national team has come to an end,” Dunn said. “It’s definitely going to be hard work getting back into the team and into the swing of things, but I think for me it’s focusing on little details in the moment now and I think that’s what’s been helping me is living in the moment. … I’m not going to focus too much on will I be back with the national team or not because I think that’s going to drive me insane thinking about that, but what I could do is just control little things that are definitely going to make me better and make me a stronger player.”