At NWSL championship media day, Crystal Dunn had plenty to say to the writers floating from table to table. A few people started recording at first, but by the time she was done, a small crowd had gathered around her, seeing her going on the record for long minutes, getting everything off her mind that’s been percolating for what seems like a while.
It’s been a long, grueling year for Dunn, who has had both the good and bad fortune to be healthy the entire time. That’s how Dunn puts it anyway. “It’s a blessing to be healthy, but I will say I’ve been healthy going on four years,” she says, knocking on the wooden table to dispel any bad luck. “And I have not had a rest in four years I feel like.”
It’s interesting to hear Dunn frame it that way: if you’re healthy, it means you’re available, and if you’re available, you’re going to play, because your team needs you or your own competitive drive compels you or both. Of course no player wants to be injured or sit out, but at the same time, not all players have had to take on the same responsibilities Dunn has been carrying, with her acting as the Courage’s linchpin at the 10, and then taking on the serious weight of two-way defensive responsibilities for the national team. And at the World Cup, no less, although with how packed this season has been, France feels like it was years ago, not months.
“Literally I can’t even remember the World Cup. I mentioned it just now and I was like wait. Yep, that was this year,” she says. “In the World Cup it was bananas. Being told to mark the best players who are naturally forwards, only have been a forward their whole life, and I’ve always been a midfielder my whole life. And to have in my head that my team needs me and I actually have to be at my best or else we might lose this game.”
Dunn is usually upbeat in interviews, talking at a rate that can become intense during the transcribing process, and media day was no different. But what came through in addition to her good spirits was her clear exhaustion, and how ready she is to finally be able to just sit down and breathe. She had a few jokes – Megan Rapinoe was injured but at least she got to rest during the Victory Tour, miming how she plans to scuffle with fellow high-workload player Julie Ertz in the championship game – but even those sounded somewhat weary. “This is the final hurrah for right now and I’m sure both teams are hurting a bit in this sense, just the fatigue is setting in a bit,” she says.
Anyone with the drive to make it to the national team has a competitive mindset, but Dunn’s personal nature seems to multiply that, adding to her mental burden to always be the best no matter what is asked of her. “I struggled this year,” she says. “I actually really took some time to mentally get myself together because I don’t think people actually understand what goes on in my mind and what I have to deal with that a lot of people don’t have to deal with. I don’t get to have one identity. I have to wear multiple hats.”
Dunn had to take some time off from the Courage after the World Cup just to help manage the load, which she gently called “frickin’ wild.” She praised her teammates for being understanding, and for never making it hard for her to feel welcomed back into the fold. “I always feel confident being able to be like, listen guys, I need a day. I’m really sorry. You know I would love to be here and be mentally there but I need a day.”
“I think a lot of responsibility falls on us,” she says, “us” being national team players, who undoubtedly do shoulder the burden of having to grow the game, be representatives of their sport, and contribute consistently to wins. “Everyone knows working two jobs, in a sense, is tiring, it’s hard. But I think you have to just put in the extra effort. I know there are days where I’m like borderline faking a smile being in this environment because I’m so exhausted that I just got back from the national team, but I know that’s what my team needs me to do.”
Dunn hopes the situation changes in the future, with the league schedule eventually being less grueling for everyone, but particularly for national players, who have to come and go and are beholden to their federations (particularly if they’re paying the bills, in the case of US Soccer) and international windows. “I think it’s weird people have to miss 12 games in a year when overseas the World Cup happens, the Olympic happens,” she says, contrasting it with Europe, where they can have summers off and a grace period around major events, as well as some downtime before preseason. But she knows that’s not going to happen any time soon, with both 2019 and 2020 being “disruptive years,” in her words, pulling NT players back and forth between their two duties.
For a healthier schedule, the league will need to go through some serious growth, and even though Dunn is generally positive about things – particularly with the announcement of expansion in 2021 to Louisville, Budweiser’s sponsorship, and the hope of a national broadcast deal on the horizon – she’s also highly aware of flaws, like the high turnover in the league’s front office communications team. “I do think that if you’re not paying people appropriately, you can’t expect people to want to stay and work, and I think that’s exactly what’s happening in the office. People want to be involved in women’s soccer, but at what cost? Are you paying them accordingly? Are you making it feel like this job is an incredible job, not just for wanting to be a part of women’s soccer but because you can make a living actually from it?”
That high turnover has cascaded into other areas of the league. Dunn is more than ready to answer a question about the 2019 NWSL Best XI, a list that had fans, media, coaches, players, and even players’ parents asking what went wrong. “Not one single human being is happy about it,” Dunn says, shaking her head. “I’m actually really happy there was an uproar because I think enough people actually realized whoa, something’s off.”
In years past, Dunn says, people might have just gone along with the Best and Second XI, which feature several players who played less than half a season, and excluded other players who were in MVP conversations, like Debinha. So at least this time, all the hoopla shows that some fans are passionate and informed. Dunn thinks it’s a problem of coverage and available information, pointing out that it’s much easier to concretely see if popular men’s players are in or out of form because those games are constantly, widely available. It’s different for the women, who don’t have a dozen different cameras pointed at every move they make, with glossily-produced games on big networks. Fans just aren’t as informed, although in Dunn’s diagnosis it’s not always because they don’t have access.
“I think the problem is people want to just be fans and say, ‘oh my god I like your social life outside of soccer’ and they vote for you because of that. But I think I’m a player first before everything else, so at the end of the day, just grade me on my form. And I think that’s where we are kind of lacking right now,” she says.
Dunn thinks sometimes fan votes are more about getting to participate in the process and feeling involved with the players, rather than going off of form or actually rewarding performance. No one really knows what happens with this year’s Best XI, but the Player Association vote was very different and the media vote seems to have been truncated through poor communication, with many writers not receiving ballots despite being on NWSL’s media mailing list. That pretty much leaves the fan vote, which could have been amplified by incorrectly weighting their segment. But this is just speculation; all Dunn knows for sure is that something went wrong.
“I just truly believe that no one really watching the actual NWSL this year could have possibly thought that that was an appropriate best XI,” she says. She wants young players to be able to come to the league and see that hard work gets recognized, whether you’re a national team player or not. Dunn is very aware that national team players get treated differently from the rest of the players in the league, and she believes this different treatment makes it even more crucial for her to be a peak performer at all times.
“I think that we have a responsibility to want to be the best person on the field and not just speak on our name and say, ‘oh I did this whatever year whatever game back in the day’. I’m here now trying to be in form because at the end of the year I want to be recognized for somebody that had a good year, not a good year two, three years ago. And I think when people start to realize and be true fans of women’s soccer they’ll realize you don’t just vote for your favorite player, you vote for the players that have been good and sparked change in the league and things like that.”
Dunn makes it clear that none of her Best XI complaints have been about her exclusion (after all, she made the NWSL Players Association Best XI, and that award is voted on solely by her peers). She’s just frustrated that a player can truly give their all and not get recognized for it because in the end, the votes turn into a popularity contest.
“At the end of the day does it break anyone’s back if they’re not on the list?” she asks rhetorically. “But I see players like Debinha on my team [not on the list]. Why, how, how?” There’s passion in Dunn’s voice as she tries to express her disappointment and frustration to the cluster of reporters at her table, gesturing with her hands. “There’s so many people deserving of accolades and it breaks my heart because I see them day in and day out working extremely hard, busting their ass, doing what they especially want to do for this team every day, and they don’t get recognition.”
So she wants transparency in the voting process, and she wants improvement from the league front office in handling details like these. And she wants to rest. She’s waiting to see how new US women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski is going to play her, if she has to continue splitting her on-field identity between club and country. If Andonovski tells her he wants her to focus on being a great 10, she acknowledges there will be some mental relief, but that it would also increase the pressure on her to be in form in the midfield. “If you’re asked to play a certain role on the national team especially, you don’t want to be just average,” she says. If Crystal Dunn is a 10, then Crystal Dunn wants to be the best 10 in the world.
Dunn will hopefully get that rest soon, with just this one (very important) game standing between her and the end of the season. At the very least, she’s going on the honeymoon she put off last year, traveling to Barbados with her husband after the championship. There’s lots of sand, sun, and sleep in her near future. “Dude, my phone is going to be thrown in the ocean. Chuck it out. Can’t reach me unless I can reach you,” she says. There’s no denying that she’s earned it.