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North Carolina Courage

Crystal Dunn leads way for NC Courage, plays at her best

North Carolina Courage forward Crystal Dunn charges towards Orlando's goal on April 17, 2019 in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam, Pro Soccer USA)
North Carolina Courage forward Crystal Dunn charges towards Orlando's goal on April 17, 2019 in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam, Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — Crystal Dunn waited patiently nearby. Like a child trying to swipe a cookie when parents aren’t minding, she was looking for the right moment to pounce on the ball.

In the 45th minute of Wednesday’s clash between the North Carolina Courage and the visiting Orlando Pride at WakeMed Soccer Park, Pride forward Alex Morgan unwisely danced on the ball near her own 18-yard line, attempting to elude a pressing Courage defender. After a turn, Morgan created just a bit too much space between herself and the ball, and Dunn came sprinting in.

“What our front line does extremely well is pressing teams in their end and winning the ball high up,” Dunn said.

The versatile 5-foot-1 footballer from Hyde Park, New York grabbed possession and turned the jets on, quickly smashing into the Pride’s penalty box. When the defense collapsed on her, she played a slick pass to Lynn Williams, who then placed a precise shot just inside the far post, notching the first of the Courage’s five goals during the Wednesday evening shutout.

Dunn scored two of those remaining four, making her mark on three of the Courage’s five scores.

“Crystal was amazing. She is fantastic,” Williams said. “She’s one of the best players in the world. She was relentless, she was turning really great in the pocket, she was finding great spaces and she was relentless in shooting.”

At 26-years-old and entering her sixth season as a pro, Dunn’s game is the same as it’s always been, just a bit more fierce.

She can play almost any position on the pitch and is always attempting to make her presence felt in each match she plays. A year ago, she mostly starred as a winger for Paul Riley’s Courage team that won the NWSL shield, championship and the International Champions Cup. For the U.S. national team, she has often appeared at fullback.

So far this season, she’s been playing as a No. 10. And she’s been stellar.

“She’s led the role really well,” Riley said. “It’s not an easy role to play, the No. 10, but she found great spaces – central space, wide space, half space – she got in behind, she floated underneath. I thought she was brilliant and when she’s in that kind of mood, she’s very hard to defend.”

Crystal Dunn sets her sights on the ball during a recent N.C. Courage training session in April 2019 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

Two games into the 2019 NWSL season, Dunn has three goals and an assist. In 2018, she tallied eight goals and seven assists in 23 appearances. The math says she’s on track to shatter last year’s numbers by a wide margin.

While Dunn enjoys this mini-streak of being the primary creator of offense for the Courage, she isn’t someone who needs to always be in a position to score. As long as she is a positive influence for her winning side, that’s enough.

“My main goal, I always tell people, is to impact the game,” Dunn said. “I’m just a player that loves to be involved, and whether that’s me scoring or assisting, great. I do love to score and I love to try and help this team out, but did I think I’d start the season with three goals? No.”

Early into this season, Riley and the Courage have needed Dunn to create goals, and she’s been happy to oblige.

In the first game of the season – a 1-1 draw against the Chicago Red Stars this past Saturday – Dunn notched the equalizer in the 65th minute by corralling a throw-in, sprinting past three defenders and then slicing a clean shot into the back of the net.

On Wednesday, she scored the third and fifth goals of the night for the Courage by being in the right place at the right time, by being aggressive and by putting quality shots on target.

Unmarked on a short corner play in the 70th minute, the ball bounced off a defender’s head, took one hop off the turf and then met Dunn’s swinging left foot before connecting with the back of the net.

In the 77th minute, the Courage launched another ball into the box off a short corner. It took a few touches off players and turf and then fell to Dunn, who powered a shot past Orlando’s keeper.

“It was a great corner kick and we got some bodies around the ball,” Dunn said. “The ball dropped to me and I just wanted to get it on frame. It probably hit some people on the way, but it was able to find its way to the back of the net.”

Dunn is now another player for the Courage that opposing teams must keep an eye on. Marking her, Williams, Jessica McDonald and Debinha won’t be an easy task, which is what makes the Courage so difficult to defend. Dunn is one of a handful of players at Riley’s disposal that can expose a backline and take advantage of a mistake by the opposition.

In a World Cup year for the U.S. and Dunn, she’s playing some of her best soccer.

“The other team just wants to play. They don’t want to mark Crystal Dunn,” Riley said. “She caused a lot of trouble. She’s in great form.”

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