The Interview: Crystal Dunn
The Portland midfielder details her journey from giving birth five months ago to scoring the NWSL's goal of the season on Sunday, answers which position she would prefer to play for the USWNT and more
It’s one of the great moments in NWSL history. Crystal Dunn, who had given birth to her son, Marcel, just five months ago, scored the game-winner for Portland in the 93rd minute of Sunday’s playoff semifinal to beat San Diego, and it instantly went into the annals of the league finest hours.
I spoke to Dunn about that goal, her journey back from giving birth and a lot of other topics on Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s NWSL final between Portland and Kansas City. And, as is always the case when I interview her, she was inspiring to listen to.
The entirety of the written interview below is reserved for paid subscribers. As always, you can still get the entire free audio version of my podcast tomorrow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to go for your pods.
The NWSL final between Portland and Kansas City is this Saturday on big CBS at 8 PM Eastern. And our guest now is Portland's Crystal Dunn, who scored a huge late game-winner in the semifinal. Crystal, congratulations on all of that. Thanks for coming on the show.
Hey Grant, thank you so much for having me.
I know you're so busy, so thank you for doing this the week of the final here. But I’ve got to ask you about this goal, because it's one of the coolest moments in league history, and I'm wondering where does that goal rank among the goals that you've scored in your career? Top one, top three or something else?
Oh, obviously, maybe because it's fresh on my mind, it has to be number one. It has to be number one because given how this year's been, just coming back from pregnancy leave and just fighting my way back onto the field and not really knowing what the rest of this year was going to look like, I think that goal just really summed up the year that I've had. Just sheer perseverance and the will to kind of fight my way back onto the field.
“Would I love to play midfield for the U.S. women’s national team? Yes, but we obviously have a lot of very, very skilled midfielders. So I just think at this stage, I’m 30 years old now, I’ve kind of just settled with the idea that I will probably be an outside back for the women’s national team moving forward. And I’ve grown to just make that position my own and to play it to my most authentic self.” — Crystal Dunn
On May 20 this year, just five months ago, you gave birth to your son, Marcel. Now you're scoring the goal of the season in the NWSL. How would you describe that journey over the past five months?
Honestly, everyone who's known me from the beginning of this journey knew that my thought was always to get back on the field. I'd never wanted to just be like, "Oh, I'm having a baby. Okay, let me take two years off." It was always about giving birth to a happy, healthy baby, and then getting my way back into the joy of soccer again and getting back on the field.
I trained up until I was nine months pregnant. I think that that really helped me feel connected to my teammates. I wanted to be around them. It was really important for me to not just announce my pregnancy and be like, "Okay, bye guys. I'll see you when I want to see you." I was there during preseason, I was there during the season. I was at a lot of the games, and I think, for me, after I was ready to step outside the house after becoming a mom, I was ready.
I was ready to be back on the field, and I was ready to do whatever I could to give my team the support that they needed, whether that was just being a training player, whether that was just being on the field and being a voice. And then I think that role turned into now I'm in passing patterns, now I'm a neutral on the team, now I'm actually able to be in contact on the field.
I never really knew where I would be at the end of this year, but what I did know is that I was going to do whatever it took for me to get back onto the field in some capacity.
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So where are you right now in terms of how many minutes you think you could play in a game? Because I know you haven't been starting games yet. What do you think you would be capable of?
The thought of a 90-minute game sounds crazy to me right now, but as far as fitness-wise, I think I feel pretty fit. I think it's definitely tactical-based on what the team needs. I think stepping onto the field for the first time against Orlando was just getting the nerves out of playing soccer again. And then from there, I've gradually increased my minute load. But I would say now I could definitely push for 60. I think if everyone fell off the face of the earth and I needed to play 90 minutes, could I will my way to do that? Of course.
But I think what was also something to navigate this year was knowing that I'm coming back playing after the team had already had a whole season under their belt. I didn't want to be the player that just comes back and says, "Hey, I deserve to start because of who I am and what I've done in the past." It was really important for me to be, whatever my role is for the team, it has to make sense. It has to be what's best for the team. Along the way, obviously for me it's always about gaining more confidence, gaining more minutes, but it didn't necessarily make sense for me to just come back and start. That's crazy.
What kind of game are you expecting in this final, because Kansas City has been out-possessed, I checked, in each of its last five games, so they don't usually have the majority of possession, but they’ve found ways to score on the counter, as OL Reign obviously found out. Is that what you're thinking you'll see from them this weekend?
Yeah, honestly, this week is so wild and crazy. I think every team has a style of play. I think it's actually known that a lot of teams that don't have a lot of possession are pretty lethal on transition and they don't need a lot of the ball in order to make things happen. So I think them not having the ball, they're pretty confident in maybe not having the highest percentage out of both teams. I think that's something that we'll obviously always take note of and be aware of. But for us, we like to keep the ball, we like to possess the ball, but that does not mean that we are only this possession-based team. We have obviously very good front-runners who could be very efficient in transition.
So I think the final is going to be kind of like a chess match where the first 15, 20 minutes are probably always going to be about feeling the opposition out and seeing what they're giving and where you can maybe expose them. But I think they're going to be a very organized team, they're a hardworking team, and I think it's just going to be about what team shows up that day and is willing to kind of outwork and out-mastermind the other.
This game's on big CBS in prime time, which was not the original schedule, they actually altered it so this would be the case. As a player, how do you feel about something like that happening?
First and foremost, that's incredible. I think the women's game has grown so much from even my first years in this league, and I think that's where we want the women's game to be. We want that to be the standard. What we've seen this last weekend of fans showing up and 20-plus thousand people are in these stands cheering these teams on. I think that is really where we want the women's game to be on a consistent level. We're happy that for playoffs obviously that was the case, but throughout the year, how incredible would that be that 20,000 people are showing up each week?
So I think the game has grown. It's only going to continue growing more and more. And I think us being on prime time is exactly where we've all envisioned this game to be. It obviously took 10 years for this, but better late than never. But I think that us having this final at this time means that that should be the standard. We shouldn't be saying, "Oh, this is the first time we did it and we're happy we did it one time." This should be what it is every single year for every single final.
The last time I saw you in person was in London recently, and you spoke thoughtfully on the Yates Report and what it showed, revealed about abuse in the sport. Obviously the Thorns are a significant part of that report. How have you and your teammates approached all of that at a time when you're trying to win the biggest games of the season?
It has been a long year for my organization, obviously. But just across the NWSL, I think each team is trying to heal, but also trying to find joy in playing this game again. I think, for my team specifically, a big part of this year was trying to just get back into enjoying the game. I think a lot of issues off the field, on the field, take that away at times.
And I think a big part of us going into the season was about one, playing for each other, playing for our community, who also shares in the experiences that are going on. And I think it was about taking it day by day as well, because I think some weeks feel easier than others. You go a couple weeks where you're like, "Ah, I feel great, I'm buzzing, my team is buzzing." And then you get hit with moments where you're like, "Oh my gosh, everything is so heavy around us. How can we possibly focus on playing soccer when there's so many things going on and bigger issues than this game?"
But I think over the last couple weeks we just realized we're here to play this game for ourselves, for each other, for the community. The game on Sunday really showed that there are fans that were like, "We don't want to show up, we don't want to support the organization." But seeing many people show up really helped us play that game and show up and really try to put out the best performance possible because that's really why we play this game: for the fans, for the community, for ourselves, for each other.
I think that's how we've been able to get through, is just knowing that it's a blessing that we play a team sport where you don't always have to be the strongest person that day. Someone else can kind of share that load with you, and it's okay to only give 100% of the 20% you may have that day. And there's been days like that, that I feel like I'm this energizer person that comes in every day and there's days where I was like, "I'm tired guys, I really am just going through it and I need a moment."
That's the good thing about a team sport is you don't have to be alone. You don't have to feel like you are the only one that can contribute on that day.
Couple more questions with Crystal Dunn. Really appreciate the time. Now when we see you score a goal like you did last week, and we're reminded, maybe, that you're a former Golden Boot winner in this league, and I can't help but wonder if you should be playing higher up the field for the U.S. women's national team than as a left back. What do you think?
Oh, Grant, this question. Why? (laughs) It's no secret that I consider myself a more attacking player, and that's not to say that I'm the world's best goal scorer or the world's best assister, it's just more so to say I feel like I'm at my best when I'm further up the pitch. I like to connect with people, I like to be creative, but be creative in a way that's not selfish, but to create for other people to have their moment as well. And I think that's really the joy that I've always felt in the midfield is one, you get to defend as if you're a defender. You get to help stop plays, but you also get to win the ball and face forward and be like, "All right, now I'm actually expected to help get this ball in the back of the net."
So when people ask this question, I think there's a really big reason why I love club soccer, because I've never really been asked to play outside back in club. I've only played outside back my rookie season in 2014, and since then I've always been a midfielder.
So would I love to play midfield for the U.S. women’s national team? Yes, but we obviously have a lot of very, very skilled midfielders. So I just think at this stage, I'm 30 years old now, I've kind of just settled with the idea that I will probably be an outside back for the women's national team moving forward. And I've grown to just make that position my own and to play it to my most authentic self. I'm not just only a true defender. For me, getting involved in the attack is something I've really enjoyed and embraced as an outside back. So, yeah, a girl can dream, obviously, and be this midfielder for the national team, but I think scoring goals in club has given me the fill that I need.
You have a future in international diplomacy after your playing days based on that response, if you want that. So thank you, Crystal, for being up front about it. We did just have the World Cup draw this last weekend. The U.S. just had two rare defeats in friendlies against England and Spain. And what areas do you think the U.S. needs to get better in time for the World Cup?
Great question. Those two games were a big test for us, and I think I've played this game long enough to know that with games that you lose you learn a lot about yourself, and it's a huge lesson that we all learned. I think our performances weren't good enough. I think we all know that. No one walked off the field saying, "Wow, we're surprised we didn't win that game."
For us, we created some chances in both, but the reality was our performances weren't up to the standard that we are normally used to playing at. Luckily, the World Cup isn't tomorrow. The great thing is that we have some time, but I think just developing our style of play more, connecting a bit more with each other is going to be a huge positive moving forward.
I think there was just some off passes that we just didn't connect, and you can't really expect to win games if you're not connecting passes. But I think moving forward, just deepening our roster, just making sure that everyone's on the same page and just continuing to believe in the process. Those that have been a part of the journey know that we usually do unfortunately lose to a top-ranked team leading into a major tournament, and we go on and are very successful in those tournaments. So I’m not saying that this is necessarily the case, hopefully it is, but again, you learn a lot through losing. You learn a lot through failure. For us, we look at those games as that just wasn't us, and we need to now correct things that we know that we can control and just hope that we can be better moving forward.
Lastly, I had Sophia Smith, your Portland Thorns and U.S. national team teammate on the podcast not too long ago, and had a really good conversation with her. I wanted to get your take. What do you like about the way Sophia Smith plays, and what do you think about how good she could become?
Oh, Sophia Smith? I love her. She's my little sister, I always say every day. One, I'm so honored to be her teammate. I think she is somebody who you want on your side. She is a hassle to play against, I will say. She is not easy to mark. She has such great change of direction. She's strong. She is somebody who I'm like, "Thank goodness she's on my team."
Her being so young just is scary, because she is already so good, and I know that she's going to continuously grow her game, and she's not complacent. She wants to get better. She wants to learn and grow, and what I love most about her game is how she can kind of make anything out of nothing. There'll be three players around her, and I'm like, "All right, well let's just prepare for the defensive transition." And like, "Boom." She takes those three players on in scores. And I'm like, "Okay, don't know how that happened, but that's incredible."
So I think her ability to shift the ball, draw defenders and still find ways and pockets to maneuver and get out of tight spaces is actually incredible, and it's very unique. It's not something you see a lot. One player versus three players, you're instantly thinking they're going to lose that ball. There's no way they can contain that ball and keep it. But she just finds ways to create goals. She's feisty, she works hard. She's not this forward that just wants to kind of get on the ball and when they lose it, they just stop and they put their hands in the air. She's somebody who is our first defender. We're like, "You control our defense. You're the first line of defense." So for her to be a goal scorer but also want to do the work defensively is an extra bonus to her qualities.
Portland's Crystal Dunn will meet the Kansas City Current in the NWSL final this Saturday on big CBS at 8 PM Eastern. Crystal, thanks for coming on the show.
Thanks so much, Grant.
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Her versatility might come in very handy next summer. Think she could play in a double pivot? Or sub into that role late (meaning, start at LB, then bring on a sub LB and slot Crystal into that spot)?
She’s always a great interview. Thanks, Grant.
Nice interview. That was an amazing strike!