Crystal Dunn's brilliance lifts Tar Heels

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI

Crystal Dunn filled in at center back earlier this year but has returned to attacking center midfielder for the postseason and scored five goals in four games.

PROVO, Utah -- Crystal Dunn had already accomplished more than just about anyone else on the field by the time the referee's whistle signaled the start of an NCAA tournament quarterfinal between North Carolina and BYU.

An All-American in her first two seasons with the Tar Heels, she was named the national freshman of the year for the 2010 season and the ACC's top defender in the same campaign, the only freshman ever to earn that distinction. Now a junior, she got a late start on the current college season while helping the United States win the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup in Japan.

The most glaring omission from the list of accomplishments wasn't something she could win in Provo. But she played as if she knew she had to go through the Wasatch Mountains to get to it.

For most college soccer players, reaching the College Cup is the culmination of a career. For standouts at North Carolina, it can seem like a prerequisite. You go to the College Cup so you can win a national championship. It was so for April Heinrichs, Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, Heather O'Reilly, Tobin Heath and others before now. It will be true for those who follow.

That's not necessarily fair, particularly in this day of increased national competitiveness, when advancing in the postseason requires luck as well as skill, but it's reality for a program in which no class has graduated without making it to the semifinals. And it's a part of the deal that players who put on the famous Tar Heels uniform recognize and even embrace.

"It's a great environment to be in," Dunn said of the program. "Everything that it stands for, the Mia Hamms, the Kristine Lillys, all the great names that have played here motivate me every day to get better."

It wasn't the only time those two names came up in the aftermath of Dunn's virtuoso quarterfinal performance. She not only scored both goals in a 2-1 win against No. 1 seed BYU, including the golden goal with four minutes remaining in the second overtime, but she also saved her team from suffering the opposite fate when she headed a goal-bound ball off the line in the first overtime.

After the game and after his postgame news conference, still marveling at her performance, North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance called Dunn one of the best players he has ever coached. He paused for a moment, as if to let the span of time encompassed by the assessment sink in. Then he mentioned Hamm and Lilly, reference points to make it clear he meant Dunn belonged in that kind of company.

She's so good that she willed North Carolina to the College Cup while playing out of position, at least in terms of her personal preference. But that versatility is instrumental to her team's travel plans this week.

The Tar Heels likely will pass on playing the role of Cinderella in San Diego, but they are the only team to get there as something other than a No. 1 seed, their No. 2 seed the reason for the trip to Utah and the program's first quarterfinal away from Chapel Hill. The Heels' five losses this season are almost as many as those of the other three semifinalists combined, and they represent the most of any of North Carolina's 26 College Cup teams (this is, after all, a program that has accumulated just 42 losses in 31 seasons of NCAA soccer).

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI

At 5-foot-2, Crystal Dunn isn't the biggest player on the field, but she usually makes the biggest impact.

All of that stems less from a lack of talent on the roster than from the lack of a quorum for much of the season.

The Tar Heels were without Dunn, striker Kealia Ohai and freshman goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin for six games because of the Under-20 World Cup. They were without freshman Summer Green, their leading scorer with 21 points on seven goals and seven assists, for another six games because of the Under-17 World Cup. On top of those absences, starting defender Megan Brigman broke her leg four minutes into the season opener at Portland and never returned, and fellow starting defender Caitlin Ball was lost for the balance of the regular season after the fifth game.

Even on a team with Green and Ohai, Dunn might be the toughest player to defend, but Dorrance needed her to do the defending.

"We get these kids back [from international duty], and we've got holes all over the defense," Dorrance said. "Well, she was the ACC defender of the year her freshman year, so, of course, we have all these issues in the back, and she corrected that immediately. But as you can, at a collegiate level, we waste her at the back. Why would you ever have a player with this extraordinary dribbling ability as your center back?"

With Ball healthy again for the postseason, Dunn returned to attacking center midfielder. All she did was score goals in each of the team's first three tournament games, including a solo effort to pull the Tar Heels level with a little more than eight minutes to play against Baylor in the third round, then top those efforts with her performance against BYU. It wasn't just the goals or the game-saving header. In a game in which the speed and technical ability on the field more than lived up to the expectations for a quarterfinal, 5-foot-2 Dunn left far and away the biggest footprint on the action.

Every time she touched the ball in the BYU half, it felt as if the more than 4,000 fans in the stadium held their collective breath.

"What I like about playing her there is she can take the game over," Dorrance said. "She's not a classic playmaking midfielder; she is a dribbling midfielder. Basically they don't exist, except here at the University of North Carolina. What makes it so hard for these teams is they can scout her, they can put great players on her, but they can't stop her. So she just has this incredible dribbling ability.

"We thought she could take over a game playing attacking center mid, and that's exactly what she did."

Never mind that, although her time at North Carolina and with the U.S. team proves she is willing and able to play anywhere, she still isn't playing her favorite position.

"If I had to choose a position, I would definitely choose an outside mid position," Dunn said. "I like freedom, and I like to take players on. For me, it fits my personality better because, as an outside mid, you have to worry about attacking and defending as a whole. For me, it's my comfort zone. I feel like, in the middle of the field, it's so congested that I don't have that time and space that I would like."

Dunn was always a special talent, good enough to play on youth national teams, but there were times in high school when she said she didn't believe she was good enough to play for the Tar Heels. The first time Dorrance called her, she almost cried in relaying the news to her parents. Now she is perhaps the single biggest reason North Carolina is going back to the College Cup after a two-year absence, having taken a different route to a familiar destination.

"This year wasn't our best, but we're making it to the Final Four right now," Dunn said. "It's great hearing all the negative comments from other teams and other coaches saying, 'You know, UNC really isn't as good as they used to be before.' And I get that; times have changed. The ACC is a completely different conference now, and it is so hard to play in that conference. Everyone is beating each other. I think it's great. Yeah, we might not come out top seed all the time, every year, but for us, it's about getting past those stages and being complete as a team.

"It's never too late to be a complete team. I think it's clicking for us now, and I wouldn't take anything back."

It helps to have the most complete player out there. It always has for North Carolina.

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