It’s been a terrific start for the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2016. With preparations for the Olympic Games in Brazil in full swing, the USA continues to find success, compiling a 9-0-0 record and outscoring opponents 32-1 as U.S. head coach Jill Ellis and her staff continue evaluations to eventually choose the 18-player Olympic roster.
Three players have played major roles in the scoring output for the WNT so far this year as forwards Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn, and midfielder Carli Lloyd, have racked up a combined 22 goals. Lloyd and Morgan are responsible for five of the USA’s goals this year as a direct combination, with one scoring and the other providing the assist, while Dunn tied a WNT record with five goals in a match.
“I think it’s really important that there are a lot of threats on the team,” Dunn said. “Obviously, Carli and Alex do their jobs so well and are such established players that for them this is pretty much what they’re used to. For me, moving from outside back to a more attacking role, I’m just trying to be as useful as possible. Playing different positions is never easy, but I’ve been very happy with the position that I’m in.”
For Dunn, who was among the final 25 players vying for a spot in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup roster before it was cut down to the 23 that represented the USA in Canada last summer, the last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind. Dunn has been asked often about not making the World Cup roster, and of course she has expressed the disappointment of coming so close, but it also brought an opportunity to focus on her game at the club level. The crossroads, even if she was forced to take the road less desired, was perhaps the sort of experience that could propel her to new heights. The evidence to date shows that’s exactly what happened.
Dunn used the time during the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League season to up her game and take on a leadership role, scoring a league-leading 15 goals while starting in 19 of the Washington Spirit’s 20 games and winning the league MVP.
Following the team’s victorious run in Canada, the USA embarked on a nine-game Victory Tour across the United States, with Dunn rejoining the team for the final seven matches. She went on to start every game and scored four goals, including her first international goal against Haiti on Sept. 17 in Detroit (on a header for the 5-foot-1 Dunn), and added three assists.
“Last year was a little weird, but as much as people may look at it like, ‘oh you missed out on the WWC,’ in a sense I felt more like myself than in previous years,” Dunn said. “I was able to better myself as a player and person and it involved a lot of personal growth. For me, it was more of a success than a failure. I feel like I was able to carry that into 2016 and the last couple of months have been very good for me. I’ve been excited to rejoin the National Team and feel like I’m an important player and I just work to contribute in any way that I can.”
After notching four goals in just seven games in 2015, Dunn is continuing to establish herself within the National Team in 2016, racking up seven goals in nine games so far, already a career best and second-most on the team alongside Lloyd.
Her first goal of the year came on Feb. 10 against Costa Rica in the opening match of the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying in Frisco, Texas, a 5-0 U.S. win. After early goals from Morgan and Lloyd, the USA had a 2-0 lead just nine minutes into the game. Five minutes later, the USA was up 3-0 courtesy of Dunn.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn sent a long throw-in into the penalty area from deep down the left sideline, which midfielder Lindsey Horan headed toward the goal. Morgan then sent a shot at the near post but the attempt was blocked, though not held by Costa Rica goalkeeper Diannia Diaz. Dunn sprinted to the loose rebound and hit a shot that was incredibly saved by Diaz, but she couldn’t save the second rebound that Dunn forced into the net off the foot of a Costa Rica defender who slid at the goal line.
The goal was Dunn’s first in Olympic Qualifying and her fifth career goal, a total that she would, amazingly, double five days later.
Dunn tackles teammate Ali Krieger, celebrating her first career goal.
On Feb. 15 against Puerto Rico, Dunn did what only six other women in the 31 years of the WNT program had done before, scoring five goals in one match to tie a record first set in 1991 by Brandi Chastain during a Women’s World Cup Qualifying match.
In fact, of the seven times a U.S. player has scored five goals in a game, only twice was it not in a CONCACAF qualifier for the World Cup or Olympics, that being when Abby Wambach scored all five goals in the second half of a 5-0 win vs. Ireland in 2002 and Michelle Akers scored five in a Women’s World Cup match against Chinese Taipei in 1991.
“I did not step into that game feeling like ‘hey, I think I’m going to score five goals today,’ but I think I did step into that game completely confident, feeling like myself and just not overthinking things,” Dunn said. “It’s so easy to get in your own head and get yourself flustered, so I remember going into that game with a ‘I’m going to play to my best ability, and I’m not going to focus on any mistakes I make. I’m just going to keep focused and keep the ball rolling and moving, and keep showing up for my teammates and continue working hard.’”
Dunn scored twice in the first half, which was already the first multi-goal game of her career, and then followed it up by adding three more in the second to catapult her performance into the record books alongside Chastain, Akers, Tiffeny Milbrett, Wambach, Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux.
All five of Dunn’s goals against Puerto Rico were assisted by different players, with Mallory Pugh, Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Meghan Klingenberg and Morgan Brian getting in on the action. For Dunn, the impact shown by a wide range of players indicates a special new chemistry brewing between players, old and new, that can contribute to a dominant USA team.
“This year has shown how much we’ve all grown, and being kind of a completely new team, we had to deal with shaking up chemistry,” she said. “I think that that’s definitely coming along and I think it’s going to be such a successful year for us.”
Most recently, Dunn tallied her 11th career goal and seventh of the year during the 2016 SheBelieves Cup, a tournament that saw four of the top five women’s national teams in the world compete on U.S. soil from March 3-9.
In front of a record crowd in Tampa, Fla. on March 3 against England, Dunn scored the game-winner in the 72nd minute, less than 10 minutes after entering as a substitute, with a world class strike into the upper right corner.
Dunn's cool and collected celebration after scoring the game-winner against England.
Klingenberg started the play with some nice footwork on the ball to the left of the penalty area. She then slipped a pass between two England defenders to Dunn, who took two touches into the left corner of the box and then ripped a shot for the crucial score.
“Scoring that goal was really important for me,” Dunn said. “Without that goal my team would have tied, which wouldn’t have been that great in the long run with the tournament going on. I think for me, after that goal I felt like a key player. There’s no better feeling than knowing your contributions have paid off and you’re making your mark. Obviously, I had only played for 20 minutes that game but it’s all about making due with whatever time you’re given. To be a sub, come in, and make an impact in the game was a really great feeling.”
The U.S. WNT returns to action in a pair of friendly matches against Colombia on April 6 in East Hartford, Connecticut (7 p.m. ET, FS1) and again on April 10 in Chester, Pennsylvania (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Every game is important,” Dunn said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, I think we always do a really good job of having the same mentality going into every game. It’s all about preparation for the Olympics, and the way you want to train. We want to go into these games against Colombia in the way we want to carry ourselves in the Olympics. It’s important for us to, obviously respect any team we’re playing, but also have a confidence in each other and really work on our chemistry, score goals, keep shutouts and continue to do the things we do well.”