Focus on one reason if you want, and in fairness, any of Crystal Dunn’s reasons would make sense on their own. The draw of living at home. The need for a new challenge. The lure of one of the world’s most famous clubs. Many players before Dunn have chosen the Portland Thorns for that reason, and many before her have wanted to play in the city they call home.
But speaking one day before her trade to Portland was announced, the National Women’s Soccer League’s 2015 Most Valuable Player makes it clear: There was no one, overriding reason that made this move appeal to her. It’s a combination of factors that have sent the 28 year old to Portland. Without understanding the balance between each, it’s impossible to understand this move.
“I think it's important people realize that this is a new challenge on the field for me,” she says, “one that's going to make me a better player. That's really important to me, alongside my home and my family being there as well.”
Before digging too deep into that quote, it’s important to know why Dunn’s trade is such a big deal, because leaving her biography at former MVP is a shortcut, at best. Dunn is a world champion, having started at left back for the United States as they claimed the World Cup in France last summer. She is a two-time NWSL champion, helping the North Carolina Courage to that honor in 2018 and 2019 after returning to the league from England, where she briefly played for Chelsea FC. Before that, she spent three years with the Washington Spirit, helped that team to a title game in 2016 (in which she scored twice), and was a national champion at the University of North Carolina before becoming the first pick in the 2014 NWSL College Draft. Yes, she is a big deal.
- INFOGRAPHIC: Crystal Dunn
Putting the Wikipedia part of our presentation aside, Dunn is arguably the most impactful player in the NWSL. “Arguably” needs to be said because there are four or five other players who deserve a place in the conversation. But from her attacking role in North Carolina’s midfield, Dunn gave as much value to her team as anybody in the league, and she can also play almost any other position on the field.
The price for that kind of talent isn’t cheap, though given how few Crystal Dunns there are in the world, it’s certainly worth it: a good draft pick next season; a scarce and increasingly valuable international roster spot (for the 2021 season only); as well as a haul of allocation money that may have only been palatable because of a separate, prior move. On the Thorns’ books, you can draw a direct line from May’s sale of right back Ellie Carpenter to France’s Olympique Lyonnais to the acquisition of Dunn, with OL Reign an intermediary step in Dunn’s path to Portland.
“Crystal is a game-changer ...," Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, who coached Dunn during her MVP season, offered in Portland’s trade announcement. "She has a winning mentality, a contagious personality full of positivity and the desire to be the best and make people around her the best.”
Dunn’s family considerations are going to come up. She’s already thought about it. “I know a lot of people will be like, ‘oh, she wants to be with her husband,’” she admits, saying, “it's no secret that family is really important to me.” But she’s been with her husband, Thorns FC Head Athletic Trainer Pierre Soubrier, before. They worked together when she played for the Washington Spirit, albeit before they were married. Despite that connection, she left that situation looking for her career’s next challenge, just as she now leaves one challenge for another.
“I get very attached to my environments,” she admits, “because I give my all for any team that I play for. So this move has been hard …”
To reduce a player’s choices to any single reason can be convenient at best; insulting, at worst. Sometimes that’s the case. This isn’t one of those times. Instead Dunn takes time to make it clear: This isn’t about just family, nor is it just about soccer. Both are extremely important parts of her identity. “I've been married three years, and I've spent minimal time with my husband,” she said, moments after explaining, “I value being a soccer player and competing, and everything about the sport makes me a better person and a player.”
To imply this move is only about family ignores the professional identity Dunn has forged. Yet to ignore family and focus only on soccer risks devaluing what Dunn is giving up.
“I am going to miss the North Carolina environment,” she says, explaining. “[My teammates] have been great … I also think those players are going to be supportive of my move, which is really important to me. They valued me enough as a teammate to know that this has nothing to do about not liking playing for the team ...”
“I think that it is so important for people to realize that we're not just soccer players. We have so many layers to us. It's really important that we ask for balance in our life and enjoy what it's like to be a well-rounded human being.”
Dunn has earned that right. When she left the Spirit to play in Europe, she had proven she could succeed at the professional level as an individual. Even in terms of team honors, she was seconds (literally seconds) away from being a champion in 2016. Since then, she’s won the most important honors available to her for both club and country. She may be only 28, but at some point it’s fair to ask, “what else does she have to prove?”
Still, she doesn’t see it that way. Instead, Dunn sees her career as a set of discrete windows – small sprints that get her from one level to another.
“I always like to think that I evolve every two years,” she says. “The game of soccer is constantly evolving, moving, changing, and with me, I feel like that's exactly how my career has been.”
In her second year in Washington, she won an MVP. Two years later, she was starting for her national team. Two years after that, she was a world champion.
“Every two years, I'm ready to take on new challenges,” she explains. “That doesn't necessarily mean moving teams. That means reinventing who I want to be as a player, whether that's playing with the national team and playing a completely different position, or anything. I'm really looking forward to always being challenged and growing as a player.”
With Portland, the challenges are clear. In joining the Thorns, she becomes part of a group that increasingly has title expectations. While that’s always been a part of Portland’s DNA, the urge has increased after three years without a trophy, and especially after last winter’s makeover has proven fruitful. After the team’s progress during the NWSL’s recently completed Fall Series, the new-look Thorns will likely go into 2021 expecting trophies. And Dunn will play a crucial part.
“For me, this move is really about playing for an organization that upholds a standard across the league,” she says, “and really wanting to make a mark and an impact on the environment. So many great players have come through this program, so even though I do believe in my skill set, I know there is a standard I have to meet. That's going to challenge …”
The challenge. The club. The move home. They all matter. They’re all part of Dunn’s next phase, and while any of those reasons alone would be enough to justify a new start, for her, it’s the combination that matters most. It’s about being well-rounded, bringing different parts of her life together, and achieving the next thing which, at this point in her life, she’s sought most: balance.