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USWNT loves Crystal Dunn at left back. The feeling isn’t exactly mutual.

When she moves from her NWSL club to the national team, Crystal Dunn shifts to left back, a demand that she called challenging. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
5 min

NASHVILLE — Crystal Dunn is one of the best left backs in international women’s soccer. Thing is, she does not love playing the position, and with the U.S. national team five months from seeking a third consecutive World Cup trophy, she is sharing her frustration.

Dunn is a natural attacker, a role that has suited her fabulously on youth national teams, at the University of North Carolina and during much of a nine-year NWSL career highlighted by three championships and an MVP award.

For the U.S. senior squad, though, she has been defined by excellence on the back line as both a one-on-one defender and a fleet, overlapping wing wreaking havoc on already inundated opponents. She has grown tired of it.

In a GQ profile published Friday, she said: “I step into camp, and I feel like I lose a part of myself. I no longer get to be Crystal who scores goals, assists, is this attacking player. I step into an environment where I have to be world class in a position that I don’t think is my best position.”

On Saturday, as the U.S. team prepared to face Japan on Sunday in its second game at the SheBelieves Cup, Dunn spoke to reporters about her comments to GQ and expanded on her positional discomfort.

“It’s not a secret that I’ve always struggled with my identity on the field,” she said. “I’m currently probably one of the very few players, if not the only player, that plays one position here and then goes to my club [the Portland Thorns] and plays a different position. It’s not to say I don’t embrace that challenge, but it’s not something that is necessarily easy or necessarily something I absolutely love at all times.”

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Dunn’s comments come at an awkward time. With five World Cup tuneups left, Coach Vlatko Andonovski is focused on raising his team’s play and determining his best lineup and partnerships. He will begin narrowing the roster after two April friendlies and will announce his 23-player squad in June.

Because of injuries and pregnancies, the back line has created challenges. Kelley O’Hara, Tierna Davidson and Abby Dahlkemper — all members of the 2019 World Cup squad — are recovering from injuries. Dunn and Casey Krueger are returning from giving birth last year.

Dunn’s World Cup incumbency at left back was not in question, aside from regaining peak fitness after the birth of her first child, Marcel, in May. She played between 25 and 30 minutes in all three U.S. matches in the fall and the first half in all three this winter.

Dunn began her left-back career under Andonovski’s predecessor, Jill Ellis, and shined at the 2019 World Cup.

In deciding to speak out, Dunn said Saturday: “It’s just being authentic to how I feel. When I was younger, it was easy to just say, ‘Oh, I’m happy to always play wherever the coach needs me to be.’ I’ve embraced my role 100 percent on this team, always competing to be the absolute best outside back I can possibly be. But the reality is, I almost sometimes feel like I’m a part-time outside back” because of her attacking role with the NWSL champion Thorns.

She added: “It’s not to say I’m never grateful for being here and where I am on this team. It’s just to say, ‘It’s okay to also speak your truth and say it’s hard, it’s a challenge and it’s lonely at times.’ ”

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Andonovski continues to view Dunn as his best left back and, given the team’s personnel and style, left back as Dunn’s best position. Playing in the midfield, he said, would mean competing for playing time with standouts Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan, plus Catarina Macario, a rising star recovering from an ACL injury.

“If [Dunn] doesn’t feel comfortable playing left back, nobody is forced to play in any position, right?” Andonovski said. “She’s world class and probably one of the best left backs in the world. As a midfielder, she has big, stiff competition in her position. So everybody has a choice, and then we make the decision.”

As for Dunn playing even farther upfield, on the wings, Mallory Swanson is in the best form of her career, and Sophia Smith was the program’s top player last year before she missed the past two camps with a foot injury.

“I’ll be open to anything, but if I was a player on the national team right now, Mallory Swanson is probably the last player I would want to compete against,” Andonovski said.

The U.S. team has another strong candidate at left back, Emily Fox, who lacks Dunn’s experience. Andonovski emphasized that Dunn has the liberty to move onto the left flank and veer into the central midfield. But pressed on the issue, he seemed to lose patience.

“Crystal has not expressed [unhappiness] with me recently, and as I said before, it’s a choice,” he said. “Nobody is forced to play on the national team. Nobody’s forced to play in any position. Every time I’ve talked to Crystal, she shares how much she enjoys being on the team and loves helping the team being successful. As a coach, I’m happy to hear that, and I’m happy to help her in the position with all the tasks she has to do.”

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Notes: Lavelle and defender Naomi Girma were to be evaluated following Saturday’s training session after they missed Thursday’s match with undisclosed injuries.

“If there is any risk of injury, they’re not going to play,” Andonovski said before the workout. “But so far, both of them feel very good.” ...

At least 24,000 are expected Sunday for the U.S. team’s first match at Geodis Park, a 30,000-capacity MLS stadium that opened in May.