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Soccer star Crystal Dunn on pay disparity, the pressure to succeed — and her fave Drake

The USWNT standout is engaged to be married and set for big match vs. Portugal

For Crystal Dunn, the idea from Mia Hamm was downright frightening. It was 2010, and Dunn, the diminutive soccer prodigy, had been chosen by America’s most celebrated women’s soccer player to wear her legendary No. 19 University of North Carolina Tar Heels jersey.

“I was like, ‘No!’ ” says Dunn with a laugh as she recalls her reaction. “Because I just knew I would be messing up in that jersey. I didn’t want to curse Mia’s number.”

That, of course, did not happen. During her history-making freshman run at UNC, wearing that No. 19, Dunn led the team in scoring (26 points, including nine goals and eight assists) and became the first freshman to be named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Dunn went on to lead the Tar Heels to the 2012 national championship and was named both the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year and then Athlete of the Year in 2013.

“As a kid I had a dream that if I didn’t play soccer, I’d totally be an entertainer. What I do on the field is similar to being on a stage.”

Dunn’s jump to the pros also produced impressive results. She picked up the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Golden Boot for the Washington Spirit, scoring the most goals (15) and winning the league’s MVP award. All along, Dunn proved wrong the doubters who claimed she was too small to play.

But then reality hit. Dunn was left off the 23-player roster for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. “Listen, some days I wanted to walk around like, ‘Nobody can tell me nothing,’ ” said Dunn, who has since rebounded nicely as one of the key players on the U.S. women’s national team. “You can be confident in yourself and walk around like I’m that chick, but ultimately, every game and day is going to bring new challenges.”

So when she’s not breaking ankles as a standout with the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League champion North Carolina Courage (wearing No. 19), Dunn, 26, is turning heads with the USWNT, which plays Thursday vs. Portugal on ESPN2/ESPN3. And, as if she weren’t busy enough, the forward from Rockville Centre, New York, is set to marry Pierre Soubrier, the French head of sports medicine and high performance at the Colorado Rapids Academy, in December. After that? The women’s national team heads to France for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

We caught up with Dunn to talk about what’s ahead:

This is a seriously stacked national team. Do you feel like you have finally solidified your role on this squad?

It’s so hard to say. Even if you’re playing well for five, six games in a row, you should never fully feel like you can do no wrong. That’s what keeps us hungry every single game … feeling like nothing is ever really set in stone.

Your speed, elusiveness and compact size has given you an advantage on the pitch, allowing you to play positions from midfielder to forward and even defender. What’s next … goalkeeper?

“I can contribute to a game in different ways. That’s what catches eyes.”

Exactly! (Laughs.) I think I’m going to be trying out for goalkeeper role soon. But seriously, it’s been a journey being that player who is all over the pitch. Overall, it makes me special. I can contribute to a game in different ways. That’s what catches eyes. It’s not just about playing up top and scoring all the goals. It’s about being that well-rounded player.

Judging from your YouTube videos, it’s clear you weren’t born with two left feet. Should we start a petition to get you on Dancing with the Stars?

I think so! You guys need to tweet some more of my moves out and help me out. But all jokes aside, I just love music, and I love dancing. As a kid I had a dream that if I didn’t play soccer, I’d totally be an entertainer. What I do on the field is similar to being on a stage. I love the locker room, game-day feeling where everyone is in their zone and listening to music to get them hyped up for the matchup.

So which music artists get you going before a game?

I listen to a lot of Drake. He gets me in that zone. I’m definitely a Beyoncé fan. … I mean, who isn’t? But if I’m the one playing the music in the locker room, I definitely try to play every type of music that everyone would be interested in. I want to put people in a better place to perform on the field.

“I listen to a lot of Drake. He gets me in that zone.”

What was your earliest memory of soccer?

I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, so all of my friends wanted to play soccer. I remember looking at my mom like, ‘Everyone is playing this game, and I don’t know much about it … but I want to play.’ My mom knew I was really close with my brother, so she made him go to soccer camp with me. I just wanted to belong and feel like part of my neighborhood and do what all my friends were doing.

What’s the most disappointing experience you’ve had as a player?

All players at this level go through some disappointing stage that makes them question, Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through this? I missed out on the World Cup that the women ended up winning in 2015. I was the last person cut off that roster. It hurt … but that was the moment when I could either crumble and say maybe me and this game should part ways — or just say life goes on. That’s what made me the player I am today.

In college you won both Defensive Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year.

It comes down to me wanting to impact the game any way that I can. From an early age I learned that because I was versatile, I wasn’t going to be fortunate like others to stay in one role. I was going to be a utility player that could be placed anywhere on the field and perform. That’s a compliment, but I didn’t always see it that way. I’m really proud of those awards because it shows that you can make an impact even in positions that people don’t seem to give much praise to.

Soccer is known for its great goal celebrations. Who in the professional soccer world has the best turn-up?

Nowadays people are acting a fool, (Laughs.) The list of great soccer celebrations is too long. I think Antoine Griezmann, who plays for the French national team, always has some funny celebrations that people end up Googling. [Lionel] Messi has a traditional one with the hands up in the air. [Paul] Pogba has taken the dab to another level, (Laughs.)

The U.S. team doesn’t see nearly the same compensation as their male counterparts, and yet they continue to win more than the men’s team. Are you finally seeing a change in how FIFA is dealing with such economic disparity?

Definitely. I think after winning it in 2015, we really started to fight back and say this is unacceptable. It’s good that we started that conversation four years ago because it gave us the opportunity to fight for what we truly believe we deserve. This time around, things are going to be different since FIFA’s announcement that they are almost doubling the bonus for winning the Women’s World Cup. That’s a huge step, but we are not where we need to be. We have to continue to be the pioneers for all women’s sports.

You once said that you have felt immense pressure to succeed, and that you carry yourself a certain way being one of the few African-Americans in, at least in America, a largely white sport. Do you think about the impact you are having on aspiring black American soccer players?

Yes! You play a game for a living, and sometimes you get so caught up in what you’re doing that you don’t even realize how many people you can affect. Just recently I was on a flight from England playing for Chelsea last season. And a girl from Kenya walked up to me and said: ‘I just want to say you give me so much hope. You have really opened up my eyes to a new world where it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you are from … you can play this sport.’ That, hands down, was the most impactful thing I have ever experienced, because when I was younger I never thought about race. I just knew that growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood there wasn’t a lot of people who looked like me. It was only until I got older when I realized how the world really works. When you get wiser, you realize that people do feel uncomfortable with who they are because of how negatively the world perceives them.

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."