Crystal Dunn's versatility a key for USWNT moving forward after win over Mexico

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Traditionally more of a midfielder or a forward, Crystal Dunn spent time as a defender in Thursday's rout over Mexico.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The walkie-talkie crackled to life in the press box before Thursday's game between the United States and Mexico. Someone on the distant end wanted to double-check a detail for the lineup sheet. A U.S. Soccer staffer confirmed that, yes, Crystal Dunn should be labeled as a defender for the evening.

Left unsaid was whether to use permanent ink.

The U.S. debuted new uniforms in a 4-1 win. But more important than a fashion statement was an ongoing alteration that could change what the lineup looks like in next summer's World Cup -- assuming the U.S. gets through Mexico and the rest of CONCACAF in qualifying this fall with as much ease as it did Thursday.

Playing Dunn at outside back, as the U.S. did for the second consecutive game, potentially solves one headache, even if it leaves the versatile 25-year-old with a familiar pounding sensation in her own head.

The caption on Dunn's Instagram post a few hours before the game seemed less than random.

Accept what you can't control or change. Change what you cannot accept.

Through injury, or at least an abundance of caution, the U.S. was without five players Thursday who will presumably be in contention for starting places in qualifying and the World Cup: Julie Ertz, Tobin Heath, Samantha Mewis, Kelley O'Hara and Casey Short. The only area of the field in which there was continuity was the forward line of Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh and Megan Rapinoe, starting together for the fifth time in as many U.S. games this year.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Morgan scored twice as the USWNT beat Mexico on Thursday.

As such, the opening goal was a glimpse of the U.S. at its best, certainly the best part of this particular lineup. Pugh won the ball off high pressure and ended up on the scoring end after the ball first found its way through Morgan, in the role of distributor, and Rapinoe for the assist. In her more traditional role, Morgan scored the next two goals early in the second half before Carli Lloyd closed the American scoring with her 99th career goal seconds after coming on as a sub.

The best the U.S. looked all night was when it was able to get the ball to its forwards and let them work together with what is fast becoming an impressive, interchanging trio. With Heath also still in the picture when healthy, the forward line in the preferred 4-3-3 is closer to World Cup-ready than any other part of the lineup for the Americans.

Which is why coach Jill Ellis can afford to tinker with Dunn.

It was almost exactly a year ago when Dunn scored twice in a friendly against Russia. She scored twice more three days later against the same opponent. It was a little more than two years ago when Dunn scored five goals for the U.S. in a win against Puerto Rico during Olympic qualifying. She has scored goals in bunches at the club and international level. But she is also versatile.

She wasn't at the top of the depth chart at forward. She might get that chance at outside back.

"Part of me loves being valued," Dunn said the day before the Mexico game. "I like to be on the pitch, I like to perform and impact the game. I just feel like a part of me wants to be more settled in a role and in a position and kind of develop in that role. It hasn't been easy for me."

That versatility has been both her blessing and her curse. A starter at center back for a U.S. youth national team coached by Ellis in the 2010 U-20 World Cup, she moved to right back on the U.S. team that won that same event in 2012. She led the University of North Carolina to an NCAA title as an attacking midfielder and won NWSL MVP honors as a forward in 2015.

She is skilled enough to play anywhere. Unfortunately for her, that also means she has.

I'm a team player. ... If that means playing in an outside-back role, then I'm ready for it.
Crystal Dunn

"I've been told I make it look easy, which is a big compliment, but it's not easy," Dunn said of flipping her mindset between attack and defense from season to season or sometimes week to week. "Especially going from an attacking player to a defensive player, your whole mindset has to change. You have to work on one-v-one defending versus one-v-one attacking. I don't think I'm amazing at it. I think I make outside back my own position. I try to bring my own style to it."

So there she was Thursday night as the left back behind Rapinoe. O'Hara and Short were both absent with injuries. Ellis said she told Taylor Smith, who at times last year seemed to be on the verge of locking in a starting job, that she wanted to look elsewhere during these games -- that after subbing for Smith during the first half of a game in the SheBelieves Cup.

"In terms of our buildup, we obviously rotated and got her high," Ellis said of Dunn. "I think we want to get her up into the flank space, where she's so special. I thought she had some good moments of interplay, but [she] is an attacking player. What I want out of my backs is the ability to attack, so that's a huge asset. What I saw from her in the England game in terms of her defending ... there's a tenacity about her, obviously she's very, very athletic -- at times, she was good in the air today. She's got a competitive spirit, and I liked her back there."

That rotation at times left Dunn sprinting back to catch up to Mexican counters, sequences that didn't look great on TV but weren't really a reflection of any missteps on her part. Of more concern but entirely understandable for the back line was the general lack of cohesion when the U.S. tried to play out of the back or manage space -- as when Mexico's Katie Johnson split a gap in the middle of the back line to score her team's lone goal in the second half.

Without O'Hara or Becky Sauerbrunn, the co-captain who was available Thursday but didn't play as she returns from injury, Dunn was far and away the most capped member of a back line that also included Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson and Emily Sonnett, though few of those caps came as a defender. The inexperience showed.

"I think me and the backs need to build on building more chemistry and communicating a little bit more," Dunn said. "But I think that's going to come. Especially for me, I'm kind of the addition in the back line; everyone else has been playing together for a couple of games now at least. It's just me getting a feel [for] playing [next to] Tierna. I think she's a great player, a great defender, but we definitely need to build some chemistry along the way if I were to continue playing in the position."

That last one was a caveat that didn't sound like a superfluous addition to the thought. Dunn said she came back from a stint with Chelsea in England's top professional league feeling a new confidence about the nuances of her game, the touch and vision that some have questioned over the years in debating her place among the top echelon of international players. She returned to the NWSL and the North Carolina Courage ready to meld that sophistication with the speed and strength, even in a small frame, that have always set her apart.

She returned, she felt, a more mature player. But still not a player allowed to mature into a role.

"My whole career has been based on being able to play in multiple positions and, obviously, do it to the best of my ability," Dunn said before the game. "But in the long run, I look back and I'm like, 'Wow, I didn't have one full season where I played in one position.' It's a lot for me, as well, to feel like I'm at my best, because if I am playing multiple positions, I can't develop. I personally feel like I don't ever achieve what I want to achieve being thrown around.

"But I'm a team player. Like I said, I want to play, I want to be on the field, I want to impact the game. If that means playing in an outside-back role, then I'm ready for it."

She certainly didn't look like someone carrying a burden as she goofed around with Davidson and traded dance steps with Rapinoe during a lull in pregame warm-ups. She offers as upbeat a public face as anyone on the team. She isn't a whiner or malingerer. However, she did sound more than a little frustrated in Jacksonville about her ever-changing roles.

And about that message on Instagram?

"Since I've been back, I've had a lot of insight on coming back to the NWSL and figuring out where I'm going to be on the pitch, both with North Carolina and with the national team," Dunn said. "For me, it's about controlling what I can control. I can't control where I'm going to be put on the pitch. I can only control my effort and my ability to embrace anything thrown at me.

"So, yeah."

So, yeah. It isn't the warmest embrace imaginable. It might be what the U.S. needs to hear.

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