Crystal Dunn is playing with freedom — and fury
Motherhood and finding her voice have helped the U.S. women’s national team veteran liberate herself from the pressure to perform
PORTLAND, Ore. — Beneath a late-morning sun that hangs over Providence Park on the first day of June, Portland Thorns midfielder Crystal Dunn is locked in a game of keep-away — better known to the soccer-fluent as Rondos. When a player loses the ball, they swap positions with someone from the defensive team. There’s an implied punishment in that, a banishment of sorts for being unfocused or sloppy enough to have given the ball up in the first place.
At the moment, Dunn is on defense.
The longer the offensive team maintains possession in Rondos, the more the game intensifies. Each successful pass swells confidence, and arrogant players start taunting with fancy footwork and risky passes just to see if they can get away with it. Dunn is slinking around the perimeter, scanning the field, anticipating not the next pass, but the one after that, so she can close off the lane and cover as much ground as possible. Taking up more space than you’re supposed to is essential for shorter soccer players – and as a 5-foot-1 Black woman, Dunn knows a thing or two about being told what kind of spaces are available to her.
After an impressive string of passes, someone plays a ball that, while marginally imprecise, would have likely reached its destination had it been defended by anyone else. But the errant pass falls into Dunn’s territory and she pounces, lunging to extend her leg so far that she lands in a near-split with the ball perfectly cushioned at her foot.
And then, because it’s Dunn, she leans down, grabs the ball, and starts sliding it back and forth under her outstretched leg across the slick turf as if it were a basketball. It’s unclear whether this is an adrenaline-fueled celebration or the mere muscle memory of an elite athlete who played basketball as a kid and still has some moves in her back pocket, but nobody else in the stadium (except for me, it seems) bats an eye. Just as quickly as the idea seems to have come to her, she pops back up and passes the ball back into play.
Dunn speaks often of how her parents, two Queens, New York, natives determined to provide their children with an easier life than they had, knew precious little about soccer when she played it for the first time. That blissful ignorance, Dunn said, immunized them to steep expectations that the culture of American competitive soccer causes some parents to project onto their kids. That gave her the space to fall in love with soccer, and to wring as much fun out of it as she could for as long as she could.
She’s also one of a few Black soccer players — let alone a dark-complexioned Black woman — to represent the U.S. on the women’s national team as long as she has, the better part of a decade. As she enters her second FIFA Women’s World Cup, starting against Vietnam on Friday (9 p.m. ET, Fox), Dunn is one of seven Black players who made the coveted 23-player roster, which is two more than the 2019 championship team, and two more than the 2015 gold medal-winning squad, which had three.
At 31, Dunn’s career sags from the weight of the awards and championship trophies she’s won. She is, statistically speaking, more accustomed to winning Big Things than not. But through most of that time, Dunn walked a tightrope familiar to many Black girls who grew up playing soccer in America: to express herself, but not so much that anyone became uncomfortable; submit to the team’s demands of unity and sacrifice, and still carve out space to name her own desires and find her own voice.
It takes time to step into one’s power — and in Dunn’s case, perhaps it also took the jolt of being cut from the 2015 World Cup roster, the monumental perspective shift of having a baby, and the sacred sovereignty of crossing the threshold into her 30s. Each milestone taught her more about herself and what she’s capable of. Now, she’s unstoppable.
“It stresses me out when people can’t see all of me.”
Dunn is seated at a table outside a coffee shop in Portland’s warehouse-y Pearl District, looking the part of a New York transplant in the Pacific Northwest: leggings with an oversized concert T-shirt (both black), gold jewelry, light makeup, soft twist out. She declines my invitation for coffee because she’s just come from a coffee date with some of her teammates. “They were talking my ear off,” she tells me with a lilt to her tone that suggests she was just as much a participant as a listener. Her nails, currently a Pantone-inspired fuchsia, will be lavender by the next time I see her. She dropped off her 1-year-old son Marcel with Sophia Smith, her friend and teammate on both the Thorns and the U.S. women’s national team, before coming to meet me, and will take advantage of the alone time by squeezing in a manicure after our talk.
Dunn does not believe in answering the question of how she’s doing with a prepackaged “I’m fine.” She will tell you not only how, but also what she’s doing, or that she’s tired, or whatever else is coursing through her spirit in that moment.
Vulnerability and authenticity allow her to connect with her teammates. In the B-roll footage of a vintage Crystal Dunn video interview circa Under-20 women’s national team camp in 2012, she shouts, “Oh, no she didn’t!” after a teammate wows her during a drill. Kealia Ohai and Taylor Schram, fellow U-20 players, complain halfheartedly about how loud she is — but, Ohai admits, “we love her for it.” Dunn is perplexed by her teammates’ fascination with what she describes as New York sensibilities. She grew up raising her voice over cars, trains, and all sorts of city symphony, and she doesn’t know how to be any other way.
“When I speak, everyone’s like, ‘Use your inside voice,’ ” Dunn said into the camera, “and I’m like, ‘What is that? There’s no such thing as an inside voice.’ ” When she refers to her teammates as “baby girl,” or cheers them on with phrases like, “Let’s do it-do it,” she’s aware she’s introducing to many of them an unfamiliar vernacular.
That doesn’t stop her from doing it. Not even when, years ago, she showed up to practice with braids after a stretch of time rocking her natural hair. Her teammates bombarded her with questions — and curious hands — about Black hair. She knows some of her teammates are genuinely curious and eager to learn and tries to meet people where they’re at. But she refuses to take on the weight of others’ ignorance or judgment.
“I know people are like, ‘Oh, there goes Crystal, always talking, always dancing,’” she said. “and I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna change.’ I’m who I am, and you know what? I’m a great teammate for it. If anything, I try to lighten the load and make people feel we play a sport for a living, and we should be enjoying it for all the challenges that come with it.”
Smith felt the relief of that eased burden when she received her first invitation to senior women’s national team camp in 2007. She was 16 years old, filled with nerves and intimidation. Then she saw Dunn break into a dance during — what else — a game of Rondos. It put her at ease and let her know that just because the environment was intense, it didn’t have to be a drag.
Thorns defender and resident DJ Kelli Hubly, another close friend of Dunn’s, knows to play Tems for her. Dunn loves Afrobeat, and dreams of opening a lounge dedicated to the genre if only to expand the nightlife variety in Portland. In the meantime, Dunn will continue to hold twerk tutorials in the locker room.
Her open-book policy isn’t limited to song, dance, and slang, though. She makes sure her people know they can come to her for advice on difficult things, too.
“I really find so much joy in my teammates being able to be like, ‘Crystal, I gotta vent. Can you listen to me?’ ” she said. “Rookies do it, veteran players do it, players my age do it.” She knows how scary it can be to open up to someone, which is why, the way she sees it, “I need to be vulnerable back so I can show them, ‘You’re not crazy. What you’re feeling is valid. I feel that, too, or I’m going through this, too.’ I think that’s how you really gain respect from your teammates and anybody you encounter in life.”
How does she extend herself in so many different directions without spreading herself too thin? How does she make sure she still has enough Crystal left for herself?
“I didn’t learn about protecting my own peace until last year when I knew I was gonna be a mom,” she said. “I think that’s when I really started being like, ‘I have a lot to give, but there’s gonna be days where I don’t.’ I needed to be OK voicing that, today, you’re gonna get 20% of what I normally have, and being OK with that as well.”
For a player with one of the highest concentrations of pure energy on any team she’s played for, Dunn finally met her match on May 20, 2022, when she gave birth to Marcel. Starting a family with her husband, former Thorns trainer Pierre Soubrier, fundamentally shifted her perspective and anchored her in a purpose that was bigger than soccer.
Motherhood has also liberated her from a lot of the unnecessary things that once held her down.
“I wouldn’t say you don’t care about how you’re perceived anymore, but you just … you move in a different way, a different light,” she said. “You’re seen through the eyes of your child, and I feel like that’s so powerful.”
This chapter of Dunn’s career is marked by her dedication to playing soccer and training through her pregnancy, how swiftly she returned to the pitch, and how little time it took her to return to form. Smith remembers Dunn jogging around the field at Providence Park, dribbling a ball that she could not even see because her belly eclipsed it. Hubly was stunned, pelting her with questions about how she managed any kind of training session if she also had morning sickness or fatigue. Dunn played her first game postpartum on Sept. 9, 2022, less than four months after giving birth. Her game-winning stoppage-time banger against the San Diego Wave in last year’s National Women’s Soccer League semifinals will no doubt be etched into the archives of the greatest moments in the history of the league. By May 6, 24 days shy of Marcel’s first birthday, Dunn was back to playing 90 minutes.
But that fairy tale overlooks the power of her time away from soccer. She said that only when she took a step back could she clear out space for emotions she’d been harboring, but hadn’t felt free to acknowledge, such as the unending saga of the two positions she’s been playing for the Thorns and the U.S. women’s national team: central midfielder for the former, and left full back for the latter.
It’s another tightrope. With the Thorns, Dunn is the ultimate party host, floating effortlessly across the field to track back on defense, create and conspire with her fellow midfielders, and bully the opposition with her quick-twitch turns and pinpoint service on the attack.
When Dunn’s in the midfield, she gets to play more directly with Smith. They’re in the same warmup group on the Thorns and talk to each other constantly throughout exercises, everything from business to banter. As both a lover of babies (Smith leads her Thorns and national team colleagues as No. 1 auntie to Marcel) and the more homebody between the two, Smith is always happy to babysit when she’s needed. Even when they’re in national team camp, Dunn is among the players she wants to get coffee with, to seek advice from. She considers her both big sister and a co-conspirator.
“I have always wanted to play with a player who just understands me and knows what I’m gonna do before I do it, and I feel like we kind of give that to each other,” Smith said. “That’s why you see us combining a lot. If I’m wide and I’m about to cross it, I don’t even have to look up and know Crystal’s there. It’s just so fun to play with a player like that. I feel like we complement each other, and this is really just the beginning of what I feel like we could do together.”
But on the national team, where Dunn plays defense, they “unfortunately” don’t get to carve up the pitch together in quite the same way, Smith said.
Dunn has been more vocal about this: Despite having played defense for the national team consistently since 2018, her preferred position is in the midfield. That’s where she feels most like herself. She wants to be in the mix, orchestrate plays, create scoring opportunities for her teammates, and, of course, score a few herself. Dunn has been praised for her ability to, as U.S. women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski has said, play in the midfield on Sunday and left back by Wednesday.
If you descend far enough down the social media rabbit hole concerning this debate — “Where should Crystal Dunn be playing?” — you’ll find people quick to list the names of other national team players who were asked to serve a different role for the U.S. than their pro clubs, just like Dunn. Others like to remind everyone, lest it be forgotten, what an honor it is to represent the country anywhere on the field, and how incredible it is that Dunn is able to do that in what she said is her second-best position.
But Dunn isn’t truly at ease if she can’t express herself. That, she realized, was what had to change.
“I tried really hard to say, ‘This is amazing. These are compliments.’ It’s a compliment that a coach wants you playing here, then playing there, then playing there. But the positive outlook was really eating away at me,” she said. “Not that I was faking that idea, but I was not allowing other feelings to take space. I’m a firm believer that there can be multiple truths that exist. It doesn’t have to be an either-or.”
So Dunn created a third option: embracing her full, nonlinear, complex truth. Because there are perks of being such a versatile player, to be trusted to handle so many different roles and responsibilities at the highest levels of competition in women’s soccer. “It can also mean that I don’t love it at all times, and it’s OK to say that and express that,” she said. “I needed to hold space for what I also feel.”
The conflict between her dual identities as a player hasn’t made her any less fierce of a competitor or a team player. Her desire to win doesn’t wane when she drops back as a defender, nor does it swell when she’s in her happy place at the center of the park — which can make it easy for the untrained eye to miss that in spite of all that, something about Dunn’s game these days is just different. It’s more vinegar than honey, more violet than lavender. Her goal celebrations are laced with catharsis that feel bigger than the match. It’s not just that she’s liberated herself from the pressure to prove anything to anyone; it’s as if she’s forgiving herself for each time she ever felt the need to do it in the first place.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn – who, like Smith, is Dunn’s teammate and close friend on both the Thorns and the U.S. women’s national team – thinks players get some of their highest quality soccer when they dwell “on that edge of being pissed off.”
“I think what she’s bringing to the field right now is a little bit of a ‘f— you,’ ” Sauerbrunn said of Dunn. “Like wherever you put me, I’m gonna be the best at it. And you see that at left back with the national team, and then you see it here and she’s playing an eight [in midfield] with Portland and she’s scoring all these goals, doing all these things that you wouldn’t expect an eight to do and she’s doing it with a little bit of bite.”
The two started to grow close during the last national team camp in 2015, right before the World Cup roster was announced. Dunn was not on it, a heartbreak she responded to by having arguably the best season of her pro career to date, scoring 15 goals and earning the NWSL Golden Boot and the MVP award. Over the years, Sauerbrunn has watched Dunn reconcile her dualities — offense and defense, joy and fury — and eventually settle into a place of peace.
“I think she steps more into things,” Sauerbrunn said. “She knows she’s a leader, she knows we know she’s a leader, so she’s more comfortable stepping into those moments and telling how she feels on the field, off the field, everything.”
In the summer of 2020, when protests over the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin forced communities all over the world to confront issues of anti-Black racism and white supremacy, Dunn became a founding member of the Black Women’s Player Collective. The group is run by Black NWSL players who expose Black girls to all of soccer’s possibilities through grassroots programming and mentorship. Sauerbrunn leapt at the opportunity to be an advocate for the organization and has been a grateful recipient of the wisdom and experiences Dunn has shared over the years, on everything from white privilege to interracial relationships they’re both in. (Sauerbrunn’s partner is Black.)
Lately, Dunn has been speaking up about equity on the field, too, particularly when it comes to her safety. Black people — not only athletes — are often viewed as stronger and more aggressive than their non-Black counterparts, which she believes can create a false illusion of physical invincibility. Combine that with the dearth of Black players in U.S. soccer and the cutthroat environment of competitive sports, and a paradox emerges. When you’re a Black player and get fouled, do you fall to the ground and hope the referee sees it, or get back up because you’re expected to be stronger than most? If you get injured, do you listen to your body if it’s calling for rest or treatment, risking time off the field that you might have to work at twice as hard to earn back?
“I really feel like people see Black women as oh, we’re so strong, and emotionally we’re strong because we’ve had to endure so much, and they think that physically, if we get knocked down, we get back up,” Dunn said.
She knows she shouldn’t joke about it, but sometimes Dunn said to some of her Black teammates, “God forbid we go down and people think we’re good to go.” She said that sometimes when she’d get knocked down in a game, she’d tell herself, “Let me stand up because I’m also not trying to let people know I’m hurt, if I am hurt.”
When she was younger, she used to keep quiet when those moments arose during games. She’d write off her own feelings by telling herself the match officials were calling fouls for and against everybody.
“I think in general, people are intimidated by women of color,” Dunn said. “We’re looking out for ourselves because nobody else is. That comes with assertion and us not taking crap. Sometimes in games if I’m getting hacked, I’m talking to the ref, like, ‘Do you see what’s happening?’ I never used to be like that.”
New seasons — in soccer and in life — come with new assignments, and Dunn has never felt more ready to take them on. And it helps tremendously, she said, to embark on these new journeys when you have a partner like Pierre Soubrier, her husband. She met him in 2015 in Washington when she was playing for the Washington Spirit. Soubrier was an athletic trainer for the club at the time, and the two bonded while watching the World Cup together, the same one she’d narrowly missed the opportunity to compete in herself. Soubrier said he was instantly drawn, like so many who’ve encountered Dunn, to her authenticity, how she emanates sunshine. When Soubrier accepted a position as the head athletic trainer of the Portland Thorns in 2019, Dunn began plotting her own career moves to join him there, which she managed to do the following year.
Being in a relationship with a pro women’s soccer player is to essentially become president of their fan club. Dunn said Soubrier leaps at every opportunity to cheer her on or bring her out of a funk if she comes home fixating on a mistake she made at practice or a game. But she still doesn’t take it for granted.
“As women of color, we don’t get that a lot,” she said of Soubrier’s endless support. “Sometimes we don’t get that even in our own relationships and I think, you know, my husband is white, and it’s one of those things where I almost look at him in a way where I’m like …”
She pauses before finishing.
“I know this sounds crazy, but I look at him and I’m like, thank you for treating me like a queen. Thank you for treating me in a way that I just hope all Black women feel, because I know for a long time we’ve been perceived as undesirable, not as attractive, not as feminine. All these traits that are not us are placed on us from societal views, and in my own marriage and relationship, I get to experience what it’s like to be treated like a queen, to be seen as beautiful, and as this amazing mother. Every day I get to have my husband in my life, I’m so thankful and appreciative that he is there treating me the way I fully believe that I deserve to be treated.”
Dunn traces part of this to Soubrier’s background. He was born and raised in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, and grew up surrounded by West Africans until he was 11 years old and his family moved to France. While they were dating, it was Soubrier who introduced Dunn to Magic System, a popular Ivorian band. Once, while she was taking out her braids ahead of a hair appointment, he offered to help, having watched his nanny in Abidjan do it while he was growing up. Dunn was shocked. She’d grown up playing with girls who couldn’t even wrap their minds around the concept of having braids as a Black person, and here came Pierre, offering his services in the most tedious aspect of their maintenance.
“He grew up in a place where he was exposed to Black people. He saw Black women. He understood culture,” Dunn said.
“I think having that exposure is what allowed him to see all my beauty, who I am, and all that I also come with, because I can be a lot,” she added with a laugh.
Soubrier also understands most how important it is for Dunn to recharge. In those moments, he said, “she likes to read, or stay in the room and fold her clothes and get organized and not be distracted. That’s the side people don’t see. They see the vibrant personality, but inside and at home, she strives for these moments of peace and quiet.”
She also finds it out in nature. The full Dunn-Soubrier roster includes five chickens and two cats. The pair are also avid gardeners, their plot bursting with leafy greens and herbs. When they’re home in Portland, they cook fresh pasta with their chickens’ eggs, with sauteed zucchini and a cucumber salad; they grow both vegetables in the garden. Soon, they’ll bring Marcel to Naked Falls, a private campground on the Washougal River near the Washington-Oregon border they used to frequent before he was born.
Earlier this year, Dunn and Soubrier dealt with their first real obstacle in the eight years they’d known each other. Soubrier said it was an incident that threatened to uproot their idyllic life in the Pacific Northwest.
Soubrier, who by then had been promoted to the director of medical and performance for the Thorns, was fired and dealt a season-long suspension from the NWSL for administering medication containing codeine to two players, violating state and federal laws. Dunn and Soubrier each released the standard statement shortly after the announcement and haven’t elaborated much on the situation since, focusing instead on moving forward and receiving support from their close friends who remained in Pierre’s corner throughout the investigation.
After a few weeks passed, as a family, they found the light. Not having a full-time job allowed Soubrier to spend time with Marcel, and get involved with organizations and causes he wouldn’t have had time to do when he was working for the Thorns. He still meets once a month with the NWSL, he said, “to give them a look into what I’m doing and the plan I put together, which was about holding myself accountable, wanting and continuing to grow, and give back to the game in the ways I can.”
He’s in a much better place now, Dunn said, which helps her to do the same.
“It’s really hard to get up every single day knowing that your partner is struggling or going through something,” she said. We’re standing outside the locker room at Lumen Field in Seattle. The Thorns have just gotten the better of their regional rivals, OL Reign, thanks to a goal from Smith and Christine Sinclair. Dunn is barefoot, her veins still pulsing with adrenaline.
The Cascadia Rivalry is always an affair full of shoulder-to-shoulder duels and high-riding emotions, but per her philosophy, there’s always room for joy. She and forward Megan Rapinoe shared a moment of banter behind coyly covered mouths toward the end of the second half. When the final whistle blew and the Thorns postgame huddle dissolved, out toddled Marcel, arms outstretched toward her. He’s already taught her a lot about patience and the need to let go of the human impulse toward control.
But perhaps most of all, Dunn has learned to appreciate herself more.
“Just finding more time to give myself that grace is something that translates into how I play and how I approach the sport now,” Dunn said. “I play with so much ease.
“I don’t tell myself enough that I’m proud of myself. It’s just go-go-go. Do-do-do. I think since being a mom, I find more time so say, ‘You know what, Crystal? You’re doin’ all right.’ ”