Washington Spirit's Crystal Dunn Only Getting Better

Crystal Dunn of the Washington Spirit leads NWSL with 13 goals, including six game-winning goals, this season. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images

It would have been easy, even understandable, for Crystal Dunn to let disappointment take the reins. She could have convinced herself that she had done her part. She could have dropped her head and wallowed in the easy comfort of what might have been.

Of course, Dunn wouldn't be the lead in the second act of the soccer summer had she done that.

When Washington Spirit teammate Christine Nairn launched a ball that covered 45 yards in the air and another 30 yards on the bounce in injury time in a recent game against Chicago, Dunn could have blanched. Come to think of it, she did. Exhausted by 92 minutes on the field in the depth of a Midwestern summer and deflated by a late Red Stars goal that tied the score minutes earlier, she watched Nairn launch the ball over her head toward only open field and silently questioned her friend's judgment. But then Dunn turned and chased. She ran so fast and made up so much ground that the defender who had had a 20-yard head start on Dunn had no choice but to play the ball out of bounds rather than risk controlling it.

What came next fed highlights. Dunn threw the ball to teammate Diana Matheson, who quickly played it back. Dunn dribbled parallel to the goal and sensed the defenders were content to shadow her on that path rather than force the issue. So she shot. It wasn't the most elegant blast she ever authored, legs sliding out from under her as she stretched to make contact, but it rolled at an almost leisurely pace toward the far post and beyond the keeper's outstretched arms for yet another goal that won yet another game.

Instead of a draw that would have left the standings unchanged as the regular season nears its end, Washington claimed all three points with the win and pulled level with Chicago for second place. All the result of her sixth game-winning goal, yes, but also the 50-yard sprint that won field position in the first place.

"That's the sport," Dunn said. "You literally never know what's going to come of a play, so you kind of have to put your all into every play because you really don't know. I think that was a prime example of me just being really optimistic in that moment and thinking there is still time for one more play, so hopefully it works out."

Opportunity knocked at one door; disappointment beckoned toward another. Hers was a choice of which to answer.

Widely if unofficially considered the first player on the wrong side of the United States World Cup bubble, unlucky No. 24 when coach Jill Ellis filled out the roster of 23 players who went on to win the title in Canada, Dunn faced that same dilemma on a grander scale this summer. That Washington will make the playoffs and is in a three-way race with Chicago and FC Kansas City for the right to host a semifinal is one indication of which knock she heeded. Another is that the MVP race is as much of a foregone conclusion as that first place Seattle Reign FC will host the other semifinal.

With three games still to play, Dunn leads the league with 13 goals. Only one player in the league's three seasons ever scored more in a single season, none in so few games.

A player versatile enough to have excelled as a center back in the U-20 World Cup, attacking midfielder on an NCAA champion and outside back on the senior national team, all while once declaring outside midfielder as her favorite position, she is dominating NWSL teams in the new role of the No. 9, the central striker pushed high up the field.

"I have not seen a player in this world who can do what Crystal can do when she has the ball at her feet," Washington coach Mark Parsons said, conceding only to the assertion that he hadn't seen Marta in person. "She is a very, very special talented player. And I think that if it continues over the next two or three years, we're going to see one of the most talented players the country has ever had."

Four months ago she was the player her country, in the form of the national team, didn't have room for. A part of the initial roster for World Cup qualifying and a player who made seven starts for the United States in 2013 and 2014, with most of those assignments during the tenure of Tom Sermanni, Dunn was replaced after she sustained a knee injury in training prior to the opening qualifier in Kansas City last October (thereby opening the door for Julie Johnston's inclusion and meteoric rise). After recovering from surgery, Dunn traveled with the team to Brazil in December but didn't play in any of four games. Her lone appearance this year came as a late substitute against England in February.

When the final World Cup roster was announced in late April, the place that had once seemed entirely probable, maybe inevitable, evaporated. Dunn's name was absent.

"I'd be lying if I said it was easy; I was really upset," Dunn said. "It wasn't like I was like, 'Bummer. Moving on.' It took a couple of weeks to kind of be like, 'All right, I'm going to be here all season; I'm missing out on a great opportunity to represent my country.'

"It was one of those things where I just had to find myself again. I think I had lost myself in the last year, just being injured and always having to fight back physically to play again. I hadn't felt like myself in awhile."

The No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft out of North Carolina, one spot ahead of college teammate Kealia Ohai and two spots ahead of Johnston, Dunn totaled three assists and no goals as a rookie with Washington. She was on the field in 21 of 24 games in the regular season and played all 90 minutes in a semifinal loss at Seattle But from the ankle sprain that wasn't fully healed when the season began to knee and foot issues as the season progressed, she was rarely whole. She tried to play anyway. Dunn's compactness is often to her advantage, a low center of gravity an asset as she slaloms through defenses with the ball, but her 5-foot-1 frame appeared ill-equipped to bear the weight of the world.

"I knew there was going to be kind of a spotlight on me, being the No. 1 draft pick and stepping into the league, and there was stress," Dunn said. "And I think I put a lot of stress on myself."

It required both body and mind to shake the fugue. Entering this week's game at Kansas City, only defender Megan Oyster had played more minutes for Washington than Dunn. It is almost as risky to credit an athlete for not getting hurt as it is to blame them for injuries that in most cases might be beyond their control, but Parsons said the two talked after last season about everything from nutrition to sleep to stretching. Like floods, injuries happen, but it's still wise to build levees to limit the former. And when her body is at rest these days, it is often because she is watching video, alone or with her coach.

"So far, the key to her success has been her health, and I think it's because she matured as a professional," Parsons said. "That's what I respect the most is she looks like she's been in the league for four or five years in how she takes care of her body, takes care of her mind. And then, two, something I probably tell her at least once a week is she's a student of the game. I couldn't say that last year."

While he disagreed at the time with the decision to omit her from the World Cup roster, as did a vocal contingent of fans, he is equally quick to point out that the player Ellis passed over isn't the player now on display in NWSL games. But if the progress of the past few months ensures it will be difficult for Ellis to leave Dunn off any future rosters, including the streamlined one that will compete in next summer's Olympics, it also makes it more difficult to know how she fits within that team. Parsons wasn't alone on a limb when he described Dunn as without equal with the ball at her feet. North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance has called her as good a dribbler as anyone he ever coached, a list that encompasses a staggering assemblage of talent.

Even if the national team's outside back positions didn't already appear to be in good hands with Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger, Dunn might be too dynamic an attacking presence for that role. Parsons believes, perhaps boldly, that she can be a No. 9 for her country, but at least in the short term, fits in a wide attacking role.

"I don't think you can play a player like Crystal further back at this point when she has shown that she's unplayable and she's unstoppable," Parsons said. "No matter what you try, she will get in front of goal, she will get that shot off. It doesn't matter what you do. You've just got to hope that she misses.

"I think the U.S., they need that player up top. I think the midfielders and the back four led the way for them in the World Cup, for sure."

For her part, Dunn said only that her focus is to finish what she started in Washington while the national team continues the victory tour it earned. Her opportunity will come.

One piece of advice Dunn received this spring was against using anger at her World Cup omission to fuel her this season, that while that anger as fuel burns hot for a short time, it burns quickly and becomes addictive. Once naturally exhausted it must be manufactured. Perhaps her coach need not have worried. Angry is not her natural state. And a summer that so easily could have been defined by dour disappointment is instead about something else entirely. She is having fun. Difficult, exhausting, challenging fun.

"I'm having a blast," Dunn said. "I haven't felt this way in a couple of years. I would say I probably felt this way in college. Stepping into the pros, it gets harder. For me, I'm just having a great time. I'm learning the game still, and every day is throwing new challenges at me."