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Crystal Dunn embraces left back, helps USWNT defense keep World Cup clean sheet

For the first time in program history, the USWNT conceded no goals through the group stage of the World Cup.

United States' Crystal Dunn, right, kicks the ball as Sweden's Nathalie Bjorn attempts to block the shot during the Women's World Cup Group F soccer match between Sweden and the United States at Stade Océane, in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

REIMS, France — In the 38th minute, a Swedish attacker tried to juke around Crystal Dunn in the box. In the 44th minute, the same No. 10, Sofia Jakobsson, took her on again one-on-one.

Dunn stuck with her, got low and thwarted both attempts. The United States women’s national team fans behind the goal faintly chanted “Cry-stal Du-unn!”

Those moments stood out amid Dunn’s performance Thursday night during the United States’ 2-0 win over Sweden in Le Havre. Dunn continuously shut down Swedish attacks on the left side and helped the U.S. keep its 2019 Women’s World Cup clean sheet. For the first time in program history, the USWNT conceded no goals through the group stage of the World Cup.

“Crystal was an animal tonight. She absolutely shut down that left side, their right side, so I was just the whole time on the backside watching it being like,’Hell yeah, this is awesome.’ Proud of her,” U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara said after the match. “She’s gonna hopefully take that into the next round and play with that confidence and continue to be that type of defender.”

After announcing the World Cup roster, U.S. coach Jill Ellis spoke about choosing versatile players who could step into multiple positions. Dunn, 26, is perhaps the greatest example of that. She played much of her career as a forward or midfielder, and still does for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League, but now primarily plays left back for the national team. She has 87 international appearances and 24 international goals and 16 assists.

“Me stepping into a new position on the field, I try not to overthink. 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 say,” Dunn said. “So, yes I have multiple identities as a soccer play. I’m a left back on the national team, but I’m a midfielder basically in my other life that I live.”

Taking on the role of left back has been a challenge for her, one she is enjoying while continuing to build confidence. She said she’s been watching all the outside backs in the World Cup and it has “been really incredible” to see how much of an impact they have on the game.

“They’re a key player, and it doesn’t matter that they have the word defender attached to their name and all the glory goes to those that assists or score goals,” Dunn said. “I really admire the position now because I feel like you can make an impact and do incredible things and also be a badass defender as well, so I’ve been having fun with it, for sure.”

United States’ Crystal Dunn heads the ball away from Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius during the Women’s World Cup Group F match between Sweden and the United States at Stade Océane, in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Dunn is part of the first-choice lineup for the United States. She started and played a full 90 minutes against Sweden and in the 13-0 victory over Thailand. She did not play in the second World Cup match against Chile, a game that featured a heavily-rotated lineup because Ellis decided to rest players against a weaker opponent.

Much of the narrative leading to the Sweden match centered on how the U.S. defense had not been challenged in its first two matches. 

Against Sweden, Dunn helped the defense prove itself with timely tackles, though she did at times get caught out of position.

Dunn said she thought the team was caught in transition a bit, too, opening the spaces that allowed Sweden to fly up the left flank. 

“Do I love this position all the time? Absolutely not. I’m yelling at my midfielders all the time to disallow that person to run in acres of space like that,” Dunn said. “But at the end of the day, it’s my job to limit opportunities, and that’s what i tried to do.

“But whenever I’m one-v-one defending, I know regardless of if I do win that possession, I have Becky Sauerbrunn behind me — not a bad person to have there to clean things up.”

Sauerbrunn praised Dunn’s defending after the match, adding that Dunn battled in the air and pushed forward well.

“She’s filled in as a left back and she’s very quality,” Sauerbrunn said.

Now the U.S. enters the knockout stage of the tournament, with Spain up first in the single-elimination round of 16. That match kicks off at noon ET Monday in Reims. 

Dunn wants future opponents to look at the U.S. as a complete team, she said, one that has more than just a high press.

“We want to move the ball and obviously go for opportunities to catch teams out of their positions,” Dunn said. “We love to just share the ball. I think at the end of the day the team that is going to go on and win is the team that has so many threats and doesn’t rely on one player. People should know we rotate our players, we have a strong 23 and we’re always fresh and ready to go.”

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