A good left back is hard to find.

Any soccer team worth its salt is a collective. But at a glance, some players seem more crucial than others. There’s the creative midfielder, clothed in the number 10, which reflects a distinguished lineage from Pele to Marta; the keeper, the last protector against the opponent’s onslaught; and the star striker, a graffiti artist trying to sully the referee’s scorecard each match. 

Then there’s everyone else—and finally, perhaps at the very bottom rung of the ladder, is the left back. 

For the U.S. Women’s National Team last summer, this thankless job belonged to Crystal Dunn. 

It was a far cry from her duties in the spring and fall for NC Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League, where she notched nine goals and four assists as the pacesetter of the local team’s attack. But across all seasons, she was a champion of adaptation—and a champion, full-stop, bringing home a World Cup trophy for the USWNT with her indefatigable defense and helping claim an NWSL Championship for the Courage with goals in both playoff matches.

Moreover, Dunn amplified her and her USWNT teammates’ advocacy, delivering a message that highlighted not only their victories but also their continuing off-field battle with U.S. Soccer for equal pay. USWNT members earn less for making the team and receive smaller performance bonuses than members of the men’s national team.

“It’s important that people realize that, yes, we play soccer for a living, but we’re so much more,” Dunn said in July. “It’s important that we make our statement very loud and clear and allow everybody to feel that they are unified with us and our team.”

Dunn, who played at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2010–13, was one of four Courage players who traveled to France and returned as world champions: Midfielder Sam Mewis, defender Abby Dahlkemper, and forward Jessica McDonald also made the trip. However, none had a task quite like Dunn, who transitioned from offensive focal point to defensive role player in the quest for gold this summer.

This was no small sacrifice. After she was the last player cut from the national team prior to the 2015 World Cup, Dunn went on to lead the NWSL in goals, claiming the league’s MVP trophy. She’s one of eight USWNT players ever to score five goals in a single match. Even on the star-studded 2019 roster, featuring stalwarts Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe, Dunn’s twenty-four career goals for the national team ranked sixth. With her speed and her inimitable capacity to shake defenders, she’s a terror on the front foot.

But this summer, manager Jill Ellis, calling Dunn “the most versatile player I’ve ever coached,” enlisted her at left back. It’s a role that promises no glory, offers few ventures forward, and harbors many handicaps: The player must confidently deploy a solid left (and often non-dominant) foot against the opponents’ deftest right-wingers, which, especially in women’s soccer, includes some of the best players in the world. As such, the leftmost defender is often a target, the potential weak point of the operation.

At the World Cup’s start, Dunn faced criticism. Her performance in the tournament was lackluster while she found her comfort level, and as Ellis’s personnel decisions continued to perplex fans, Dunn’s dodgy transition to the backline provided a tangible opportunity to second-guess. 

But under heavy pressure in the knockout rounds, no one was better. Dunn repeatedly thwarted French star Kadidiatou Diani in the quarterfinals, in perhaps the U.S.’s toughest match in the tournament; she was a similar pest against England in the semifinals, contributing to methodical 2–1 victories in both. By the final, the Netherlands barely bothered to attack Dunn’s wing, yet her interception of the ball in midfield managed to set the stage for Rose Lavelle’s trophy-clinching goal. 

At tournament’s end, Dunn was one of ten players—and one of just two defenders—to earn praise from the FIFA Technical Study Group for her performance.

In sports and in life, the egalitarian ideal can falter, diminished and buried under the desire to craft stars and narratives. Conventional and tautological thinking asserts its blinkered self: Some roles are more equal than others. But this view ignores complexities. It doesn’t comprehend the links between a team’s fullbacks, midfielders, and strikers—that one section can’t succeed without the contributions of all the others. Likewise, it misses the reality that, without proper recognition and support from the USWNT and professional women’s leagues, soccer in America won’t ever succeed.

Perhaps 2019 could represent a turning point, a chance to appreciate that left backs are important and that the USWNT, besides being on the right side of history, is wonderfully fun to watch. 

Above all, we can appreciate a player like Crystal Dunn.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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