Crystal Dunn registered 14 goals and eight assists in 25 games played for the US women’s national team in 2016. She had two goals and five assists in 13 games played for the Washington Spirit - but registered 37 shots to tie with the other team leader in shots, Christine Nairn, who played 20 games, and 14 SOG to tie with Joanna Lohman, who also played 20 games. She helped the Spirit get to the NWSL championship. Then came the news that Dunn would be leaving the Spirit to join Chelsea in the FA Women’s Super League. It seemed abrupt after a championship run with her club, unless you were paying attention to the reports of player dissatisfaction, of friction between the team and ownership. Dunn wasn’t the only one to leave; longtime key player and face of the team Ali Krieger got traded to the Orlando Pride.
Now Dunn will be joining Chelsea until at least 2018. “I signed an 18 month deal,” she said before USWNT practice on Friday. “That’s how long I plan to be there. It seems like a long time and yes, it is a long time, but as far as my contract stuff, all I’m going to comment on is that I was able to work my deal that I’ll be available for the women’s national team, which is exactly what I wanted. I don’t want the pressures of feeling isolated, not being able to be released for camps and things like. I’m very happy with my contract. I get to be in a new environment, a new experience, and also be committed to the national team.” Dunn said she departs for England around the 27th of January.
Chelsea’s season doesn’t start until much later this year, though, and there are questions as to why Dunn couldn’t work a way to play for the Spirit and then hop over to England, like a reversal of Alex Morgan’s plan to play for Lyon, then return to the Pride to finish out the NWSL season. “I think playing in two different leagues in the same season or same calendar year can be a bit much,” said Dunn. “I knew in my heart that 2017 was the year for me to experience being in a different country and playing in a new league. I wanted to jump in in the start of the year. I just didn’t see myself playing with Spirit and being like all right, it’s time for me to leave now. This is the year that I’m just putting my all into a new experience. I need to invest fully. I didn’t think six months would be enough. I think I need to really be in that environment and really be in that culture and give it a whirl.”
Part of the allure of Chelsea was the club environment; the women’s team is, if you couldn’t guess from the name, aligned with the men’s EPL team of the same name. “I visited Chelsea. I was there for about two day and fell in love pretty much,” said Dunn. “What they have to offer is incredible, a true professional environment. So close knit with the men’s team. Seeing Chelsea’s men’s team right there next to you just makes you feel like they have a lot of respect for the women’s side. They feel like we need to be on the same playing field as the men and I think that’s something incredible, something that I think everyone should experience. And with the EPL going around in England it’s going to be an amazing buzz all the time. So I’m going to be truly living in a soccer environment.”
She was also sold on Chelsea’s head coach, Emma Hayes. “I think Emma just comes off as a human being,” said Dunn. “I think it’s really great to have that connection with your coach because at the end of the day they’re a human, I’m a human, I want to be treated as such. I think being able to feel comfortable having any conversation with her, having talks, any concerns that I have, is really important. And I think that’s what she gives a lot of players. I’ve heard nothing but great things about her. I feel like everyone who’s played for her or knows her personally is like, listen, she has an idea, she’s going to run through walls to make sure that everything works out. I think that’s exactly what I got from her, is she wants to leave me being the best player that I can possibly be and I truly believe in her.”
Still, Dunn could have had her pick of teams when looking overseas for opportunities. Why didn’t she head for the French league, like a lot of other top American and Canadian talents this year? “I think I had to weigh in a lot of things,” said Dunn. “Obviously super interested in the French league. Great league. I think what Chelsea gave me was just the opportunity to be in a league where these games are going to be one nothing, two nothing. It’s not going to be huge blowouts, and I think that’s very similar to the NWSL. You never know what you’re going to get. And I think it’s very comforting being in a league where you’re going to have to push. It’s not about oh, we’re stepping into this game, we could play a man down, and we’ll still beat this time. It’s really about putting your all in every single game and I think that fits well with me and the player I am.”
Dunn was also asked for her thoughts on the NWSL draft, taking place the same weekend as USWNT camp. In fact, teammates Rose Lavelle, Christina Gibbons, and Mandy Freeman were drafted literally the day before practice. Freeman was one of five women of color drafted in the first round, making fully half the first round of NWSL draftees WOC. Dunn was visibly pleased with the information.
“The world is changing,” she said. “I can’t put my finger on it as to why now there’s more women of color playing the game, but all I can say is this sport is growing so I think with that comes diversity. There’s a larger pool of people now and I think – I’m just particularly excited that I think there’s so many stereotypes about black women playing soccer - ‘all they are is fast,’ and for me that’s another reason I think going to Chelsea is going to be great. My athleticism has gotten me where I am and it’s been awesome but I think the technical part of the game is going to change who I am and change the way the world kind of views me as a player.”
Will Dunn return to NWSL in 18 months’ time? “I can’t predict the future obviously,” she said. “18 months from now I have no idea what’s going to happen but I did have a conversation with [Jim Gabarra] and said I’m not saying I want my rights traded, yes I won’t be in the league in 2017 but DC’s my home. I have a house there, just bought one... But I think just being able to come back and have an option is obviously great but like I said, I can’t predict what 2018 is going to be like.”
2018 might be too far off for prediction, but 2017 is definitely going to be another interesting year for Crystal Dunn.