Crystal Dunn rises to occasion

Graham Hays/espnW

Sunday's victory against West Virginia came on the heels of a long and busy week of playing soccer for two teams and two positions for Crystal Dunn.

DURHAM, N.C. -- One foot in the future and one foot in the present, Crystal Dunn might seem a candidate to end up caught between two worlds.

Except that Dunn's feet, particularly in those moments when a soccer ball awaits their instructions, are precisely what make her so unlikely to stumble.

In the span of essentially a week, from just before sunset one Friday to just after night arrived the following Friday, a player who can do it all did just that.

Start on Aug. 30, when she helped top-ranked North Carolina escape its flirtation with the wrong kind of history. Trailing New Mexico midway through the second half at home, the Tar Heels pulled even on the strength of Dunn's individual effort. Receiving the ball on the left edge of the 18-yard box, she took a couple of quick touches toward the middle of the box and shot low, back across her body to beat the goalkeeper at the near post.

Her team was off the hook for a potentially historic defeat. Nerves soothed, the Tar Heels added the game winner and remained unbeaten.

That was the Friday of Labor Day weekend. By the day after the holiday, Dunn had relocated to Washington D.C., and was standing on the field at RFK Stadium while the national anthems of Mexico and the United States played before an international friendly between the two nations. For the fifth time this calendar year, she was in U.S. coach Tom Sermanni's starting lineup -- not in the attacking midfield role she plays in college but as an outside back.

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Crystal Dunn joined Abby Wambach during national team training in Washington D.C., where Dunn was in the starting lineup as an outside back in a friendly against Mexico.

Three days after she played her part in a 7-0 win for the United States, she was back in the midfield and back in Carolina blue for a decidedly more competitive game between North Carolina and UCLA, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams, respectively, in espnW's Power Rankings and Soccer American and Top Drawer Soccer Top 25 polls.

The Tar Heels controlled play from the outset. By halftime they held a 13-2 advantage in shots. UCLA goalkeepers made a total of five saves in the team's first four games this season, all of them wins. Bruins starter Katelyn Rowland had five more saves by halftime Friday night. But as often as the Tar Heels pushed all 11 opponents back into their own half to defend, the game crept toward the end of regulation without a goal (thanks in large part to Rowland's efforts on shots from Dunn and Alexa Newfield and a well-placed post getting in the way of a strike from Kealia Ohai).

Finally, in the 79th minute, Dunn gathered in a pass near the top of the 18-yard box from Brooke Elby, maneuvered closer to goal and drove a shot low toward the post, where even Rowland could do little about it. It proved to be the only goal in a 1-0 win.

One week, two worlds, two positions and a lot of soccer.

"It's pretty rough," Dunn said after the third installment of the weeklong trilogy. "Just learning a new position with the full team is already hard in itself. And then coming back into this environment and becoming the playmaker is a lot. But I mean, I love being diverse. I think it's kind of brought out the best in me as a player.

"It was hard. My legs were a little heavy, but I tried to do what I can for my team [against UCLA] and keep moving."

In doing so, she continued seizing the same territory held recently by Brittney Griner and Keilani Ricketts, athletes who perform at a different level than their college peers. Dunn doesn't stand apart in quite the manner, not so much because she stands just 5-foot-2 but because Virginia junior Morgan Brian gives the sport another transcendent talent who competes in the same conference (Brian piled up three goals and two assists for the Cavaliers over the weekend, all after she scored her first goal for the national team in the game against Mexico and scored in Virginia's rout of Penn State on Aug. 30).

Graham Hays/espnW

Crystal Dunn scored a goal as UNC handed West Virginia its first loss of the season on Sunday, 4-2.

But the observer's involuntary intake of breath as she takes off on a run and takes on defenders is the same that accompanied Griner's dunks or Ricketts' strikeouts. You are watching something rare.

"She causes so many problems," UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. "And it's not because she's a brilliant passer of the ball or a tactician. She is an absolutely extraordinary dribbler. It's not like a classic Cristiano Ronaldo, where she does 27 step-overs. What she'll do is she'll touch the ball some direction and because she's so incredibly quick and athletic, she beats almost every player to it. And when they challenge her, she's got such good lower-body strength, she rides tackles as well as any player I've ever seen in the world.

"They'll be hitting her and clipping her, and she'll stay on her feet and keep those little legs moving and all of a sudden she's by them."

Dunn has ample experience in the back line, both at North Carolina and on youth national teams, but putting her in the middle of the field and the middle of the attack unleashes her inner Barry Sanders, a diminutive frame darting and ducking between defenders without losing control of the ball. After a quarterfinal win at BYU in last season's NCAA tournament, a postseason she dominated for the national champions, Dorrance called her as good a dribbler as he ever had at North Carolina. Let's just say that is not an insignificant list.

"It's not just that she's fast, she's quick, too," UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said. "If you want to go close her, she'll just dribble by you, but you can't back off because she'll take a shot. She's just a hard player to contain. She has a quick trigger on that shot, and she can put it away."

As good as Dunn is in midfield for his team, Dorrance acknowledged that the national team's depth of talent at the position means her international future is as an outside back. Between Brian, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Erika Tymrak and others, the United States is stocked with midfield options in or entering their primes.

Still, as only he can, Dorrance also offered advice to National Women's Soccer League coaches thinking of following suit with the potential No. 1 overall pick in a talent-rich draft.

"But if any of the pro coaches put her [at outside back], they ought to line up that coach and shoot him right in the head."

Capital punishment might seem a tad extreme. Then again, she did add another goal Sunday in another game against a ranked opponent, this time West Virginia.

It wasn't a week that introduced the soccer world to Crystal Dunn. Those pleasantries came long ago. It was a reminder of what kind of talent dribbles in our midst.

One foot in the future and one in the present turns out to be the best of both worlds.

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