"How many times have we seen Crystal Dunn make something out of nothing?" Michael Minnich asked, late in the Washington Spirit's draw against the Western New York Flash on Wednesday night. It wasn't in the cards for Dunn or the Spirit, who failed to get a go-ahead goal despite nine minutes of stoppage time. But Minnich's question hints at why Dunn is a leading candidate for the 2015 National Women's Soccer League MVP award.
Dunn's omission from the U.S. Women's World Cup roster this summer garnered plenty of attention. But getting consistent minutes in the NWSL may prove to be more beneficial in the long run. With so many midfield options available for the U.S., Dunn would have had trouble getting playing time in Canada.
While Dunn was chosen as the No. 1 draft pick in 2014 by Washington out of the University of North Carolina, 2015 has been her breakout season.
In the sixteen games the Spirit (7-5-4) have played so far, Dunn has scored twelve goals. Five of them were game winners. She leads the league in both stats. She's earned NWSL Player of the Week honors four times in 2015. In week three, she scored two goals in a 3-1 win over Sky Blue FC—while playing as a defender. In week sixteen, she scored all three in a 3-1 win over the Houston Dash.
She does things like this:
The 23-year-old stands just 5'1", but looks even younger. She jokes about constantly being carded. But she has that intangible vibe that athletes at the top of their game have: swagger. Her last name lends itself to headlines, puns about getting the job Dunn. But it's on her to make sure she does something headline-worthy every game. For the most part, she's succeeded.
Last Saturday, on a perfect summer evening, the Spirit lost to the Boston Breakers. Dunn played the full 90 minutes, recorded 11 shots, 5 of them on target. The match veered into a battle of wills between her and Boston keeper Alyssa Naeher. After the final whistle, Dunn parked herself on the Washington bench to process the loss as the rest of her team gathered on the field. Ten minutes later, she was signing autographs. Twenty minutes later, she was already focused on the next game as she took questions in the post-match media scrum.
Dunn is one of those athletes who tweets a lot about the mental part of the job. "Still learning how to embrace pressure, but not let it take over control," on June 7. "I think once you stop comparing yourself to others, the sky is the limit. The reality of it all is there is only ONE you," a few weeks later.
Soccer's a team sport, and Dunn has been on a number of elite teams. Her list of awards and accomplishments at the college and U.S. youth national levels is impressive. But there's still a lonely aspect to being one of the best, of being a rare member of the elite. There is still that moment where Dunn sits on the bench, just her and a Gatorade bottle and her thoughts, until Washington head coach Mark Parsons finally notices she's not with the team.
Thirty minutes after the Spirit lost to Boston, though, Dunn seemed happy.
"I think throughout my career, it's easy for me to enjoy the game and be happy when everything's going well. When things aren't in my favor, you still have to find the happiness. I think that's what I did this season," she said. "Obviously, not making the World Cup roster was disappointing. I just turned the page, and was like, 'Life goes on.' I have a season ahead of me to look forward to. I just have to find my happiness again."
Dunn called the loss on Saturday to Boston a "bummer," but immediately said she was looking forward to Wednesday's game against Western New York. It's been tough on the road for Washington, and it's caused the season to be an up-and-down affair.
Dunn credited the support in Washington with helping her be able to bounce back faster. "You're going to have disappointing moments. When you're around people who support you and who are constantly pushing you to be at your best, it's the greatest thing. That's exactly what I needed at the point I was at in my life. I needed an environment where it would be, 'Listen, I'm going to push you and make you be at your best at every moment, at every opportunity.' That's what's allowed my game to grow this year—constantly being beat up in training and really having to fight every day."
In her second season, Dunn has started every game but one. She's also had to handle defensive and attacking roles as the team has needed. She's capable of both. When called up to the national team, Dunn has primarily been played as an outside back, but she's a player with a true nose for goal, one that can dance her way through a defense as if she already knows every move that could be used against her.
That doesn't mean she overlooks any of the other eight teams in the league.
"It doesn't even matter with the rankings," Dunn said. "Going into every game, you have to be prepared; every team is going to fight." She notes that in some of the European leagues, there are top teams and then a drop in quality of play. That's not the case for the NWSL.
Dunn's time with the national team and her role as a marquee player for the Spirit has put more than just game-time performance on her shoulders. For most of the summer, she's been the face of the Washington Spirit. Dunn doesn't mind putting on a public relations hat while she's balancing the rest of the responsibilities of being a professional soccer player. Dunn thinks it's just as important to highlight the challenges she's faced.
"For me, it's important for people to realize I'm a normal person. I love doing what I do, I love my job. But at the same time, I'm human," she said. "As much as I want to put on this front of, 'I don't cry, I'm a tough woman,' it's OK to have those emotions."
She might have those emotions after a loss, but Dunn's laser focus gets activated as well.
"We just have to regroup. That's the nature of this sport; there will be moments where it wasn't so great. But it's about how you react. And my team does a pretty good job of reacting. We rarely lose two games in a row, knock on wood." Dunn paused so she could actually knock on the wooden bleacher she was sitting on. "We hold each other accountable. I had some chances tonight; I take the blame for not putting one or two away."
Dunn and the Spirit have four games remaining in the NWSL regular season; their final game is at home, at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Washington is hanging on to the fourth and final playoff spot, and the postseason is well within their reach. But first they'll have to face the top three teams in the league..
It's not swagger when Dunn talks about playoff hopes for the Washington Spirit, it's that calm, collected air of someone who's figuring out how to embrace pressure, on and off the field. "As long as everyone is doing what they can for the team and being selfless about it," Dunn said, "we're definitely going to be in a good position."
Then she headed back to the locker rooms, ice wrapped around her knee, ready to step into battle all over again.