LYON, France — The United States is on the cusp of a second consecutive Women’s World Cup title because Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe are scoring by the bundle and because goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has defied the skeptics.
They are also in this position for the third straight time because Crystal Dunn, a natural attacker, has resisted instinctual urges to race ahead and, instead, embraced a disciplined role at left back.
Dunn’s speed, strength and endurance have helped thwart top-tier threats and eased concerns about her ability to prevent scoring opportunities rather than invent them.
“She watched films; she studied,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said. “She’s very diligent. I chatted with her [last week] and said: 'Dunnie, you’ve grown so much. You are so ready for this moment.’ "
Dunn, a Long Island native and North Carolina graduate who began her career with the Washington Spirit in 2014, is almost sure to start Sunday for the sixth time in the seven tournament matches. She is part of a back line that did not concede a goal in three Group F games and secured 2-1 victories in each of the past three knockout matches.
The final — before an expected sellout of around 53,000 at Stade de Lyon — falls four years after Dunn was the last player cut from a squad that ended a 16-year championship drought.
It comes three years after her first major soiree, the Olympics, ended in the quarterfinals, the worst U.S. showing at a big event in program history.
Ellis began grooming Dunn for the new role in early 2017, seeing her potential for a position of need. As an attacker, Dunn faced heavier competition for playing time.
It has been a tricky adjustment because, amid the U.S. change, she has remained an attacking midfielder for the North Carolina Courage, the National Women’s Soccer League champion.
“Yes,” she said smiling, “I have multiple identities.”
The defensive duty still allows her to join the attack, overlapping on the flank to cross into the penalty area and to make piercing runs.
“I think of myself as a footballer and am just trying to impact the game from a different angle of the field,” said Dunn, who turned 27 on Wednesday. “I have watched all the outside backs and thought: ‘You know what? They are key players.’
“It doesn’t matter they have the word ‘defender’ attached to their name and all the glory goes to those with assists or goals. I really admire the position now because you can have an impact and do incredible things and also be a badass defender.”
For the most part, Dunn has been just that at the World Cup. In Soccer America’s player ratings after each match, Dunn is averaging 7.4 on a 1-10 scale, second among U.S. defenders behind right back Kelley O’Hara (7.7).
France targeted Dunn in the quarterfinal, confident it could expose her inexperience in that position and create opportunities through the ever-dangerous Kadidiatou Diani. The strong French attacker won several battles, though none that led to goals. Dunn, in return, disrupted Diani with well-timed tackles and swift recoveries.
On Tuesday, Dunn received part of the credit for limiting the influence of Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris on England’s forays.
“I knew she was ready for it,” said Naeher, who is also starting in a World Cup for the first time. “She embraced it, and she’s had an unbelievable tournament. She has stepped up big time against very tough attacking players. She has been able to do her job extremely well.”
It’s not as if Dunn has never played defense. She served on the back line with the under-17 national team and was a center back for Ellis at the U-20 World Cup. Two years later, she was the right back at the U-20 tournament.
In the NWSL, though, Dunn has thrived as an attacker. In 2015, her second year with the Spirit, she scored 15 goals in 21 appearances and was voted the league’s MVP.
After helping Washington to the NWSL final in 2016, Dunn signed with English club Chelsea for a one-year stint. Returning to the U.S. league last year, she joined the Courage and proceeded to post eight goals and five assists.
When called into the national team, though, her focus turns back to defense.
“As an outside back that does like to attack, what I have had to learn was definitely picking and choosing my times to go,” said Dunn, whose 24 career goals rank sixth on the World Cup roster. “Maybe back in the day when I was first learning, I was thinking, ‘I can’t just fly forward.’ Now it’s about reading the game.”
Change has come off the field, as well. In December, she married Pierre Soubrier, head athletic trainer for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns. They had crossed paths years ago and grew closer when both were employed by the Spirit.
Soubrier is from France, a tie that created lighthearted banter among in-laws. They have all come to back Dunn and the U.S. team. Because of work, Soubrier did not arrive until the eve of the U.S.-France showdown in Paris.
She credited her future husband with helping her rebound from the emotional blow of missing the 2015 World Cup. She recently changed her legal name but for the time being will retain “Dunn” on her jersey.
“I am happy with the life I live right now,” she said. “I can’t sit here and say four years ago everything would have been completely different. Who is to say I would have stepped on the field? I met my husband the same year. He helped me get through that time. I came back a stronger player, person — everything.”
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