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Crystal Dunn is the USWNT’s most exciting attacker, so why is she going to play left back?

Dunn’s versatility and positive attitude have drawn her coaches into the trap of playing her where they have a hole, rather than where she can make the biggest difference on the game.

Soccer: She Believes Cup Womens Soccer -England at USA Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

American soccer fans are constantly clamoring for their teams to find a technical and creative mastermind. Perhaps asking for an American Messi is unreasonable, but how about the American Iniesta? Or the American Marozsán?

You know, the kind of player who does stuff like this.

Or this.

Oh, right. A player like Crystal Dunn.

Besides her slick passing, Dunn is undoubtedly one of America’s most talented goal-scorers too. She has 23 USWNT goals to her name in just 60 caps, plus an NWSL MVP and Golden Boot, and was the leading scorer in 2016 Olympic qualifying.

Dunn is the type of player who can turn a game around 180 degrees with one touch. No matter where she plays in attack, she always looks likely to grab the game-winning goal or assist. And because she can make an impact in just about any space, it doesn’t make sense to limit her.

“You don’t want to put a box around Crystal and put her somewhere where she can’t move,” her new club coach Paul Riley says. “You want her to have some freedom,” he adds. “This player is a special player.”

In Thursday’s friendly between the United States women’s national team and Mexico, Dunn is likely to start at left back.

Versatility can be a blessing and a curse for a professional soccer player. Being competent in a variety of positions all but guarantees a talented footballer that they will be able to find some playing time, somewhere. But at the same time, it could lead to a player never being allowed to truly master a position, or not getting enough of a chance to shine at their favorite.

Dunn is one of those players.

She’s played everywhere on the pitch but goalkeeper. If she does have a strong preference for playing one position over the others, she does’t say so publicly.

“I don’t know long term where I’m going to be fitting best on this team, but I’m open to whatever,” she professionally puts it when asked about her role with the North Carolina Courage.

This season, Riley plans to build the team around her. “It’s about, from the coaching end, solving all the other parts from Crystal,” Riley says. “Let Crystal be Crystal, Paul’s got to solve the other problem of how everybody else works around her.”

And yet, even Riley can’t help himself when he has a vacancy that’s difficult to fill. With superstar midfielder Samantha Mewis injured and some of his other rotation options unavailable as well, Riley turned to Dunn to fill the hole in the center of midfield in North Carolina’s NWSL season opener against the Portland Thorns.

In that game, Dunn likely had the deepest starting position and most defensive responsibility she’s ever had in a central role in any point in her career. Despite that, she looked like a seasoned deep-lying playmaker, recording a team-leading three passes leading to shots for her teammates, as well as five tackles. The Courage won 1-0 without ever looking too threatened, recording 20 shots to Portland’s three.

“Nobody ever knows, I sometimes don’t even know,” Dunn says, when asked about where she’ll get slotted in on the lineup this season. “It’s definitely a joy to be able to play multiple positions and see the pitch from so many different angles.”

When speaking to Dunn, it’s easy to believe that she truly, genuinely means this. She’s said similar things with a huge smile on her face, consistently, for several years. It seems like she just loves soccer and is going to be happy as long as she gets to play soccer at the highest level.

Some coaches have strictly defined roles in their system and want players who fit those roles, while others want to find a way to get their 11 most talented players onto the pitch, when reasonable. United States women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis is much closer to the latter category, which has led to Dunn moving all over the pitch.

Dunn first cracked the USWNT at right back while she was dominating college soccer as a forward. She earned a more attacking role with her play for the Washington Spirit in the years that followed, but was moved back again when Ellis found herself with a surplus of attackers. During Ellis’ ill-fated experiment with a back three, Dunn was used as one of two ultra-attacking wingbacks.

And now, due to injuries and Ellis’ unwillingness to call up true fullbacks as replacements, Dunn looks set to do a turn at left back for her national team. Regular starters Casey Short and Kelley O’Hara are unavailable against Mexico, while Taylor Smith has been dropped. Fullbacks Ali Krieger, Jaelene Hinkle and Megan Klingenberg have all been frozen out of the team, and apparently none of NWSL’s other starting fullbacks meet Ellis’ standards. Besides Dunn, the other potential fullbacks in the current squad are Emily Sonnett (actually a center back), Sofia Huerta (actually a winger), Tegan McGrady (in college, zero caps), and Hailie Mace (in college, zero caps, actually a striker). It seems a safe bet that fullback is where Dunn is going to play.

Ellis may well rate Dunn just as highly as Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd, but they’re very specific players, and unlikely to be effective in defensive positions. Dunn — as evidenced by her performance in her Courage debut — can get plopped into any position and play it competently without significant training.

Dunn is now a player who has a bit of everything. Her pace got her in the door with the USWNT, then she developed into a great technician, and recent she’s developed into one of the pool’s most intelligent players as well. “At UNC, she was a super-athlete,” Riley says about Dunn. “Now, she’s a super footballer. Now she’s much smarter than she used to be, she understands the game tactically much better.”

Dunn, who spent the last year at Chelsea FC in England, agrees with Riley that she’s become a more intelligent player. “I have a better understanding of the game,” she says. “I’m very happy with where my game is now, I think going overseas was a great move for me, just adding new pieces to my game and hopefully bringing it here and impacting [the Courage].”

All of this makes moving Dunn around the pitch a tempting option for a coach. But it also means that the USWNT has not gotten the most out of Dunn’s talent like they have out of attacking players like Morgan, Rapinoe, and Lloyd. Dunn matches any of them for first touch, dribbling skills, passing vision, and finishing, and blows them all away for pace, but regularly gets moved out of the most attacking roles.

It’s possible that Dunn has inadvertently hurt her own career by being too good at too many things. It’s also possible that she’s done the same with her positive attitude — coaches will acquiesce to the desires of players as talented as Dunn to keep them happy, but Dunn seems to be happy as long as she’s playing, so coaches don’t have to solve for that particular problem.

This is how Dunn, arguably the most complete attacking player in the USWNT player pool, ends up at left back. Maybe it’s a necessary evil; Dunn playing left back is the only way to get the 11 most talented USWNT players on the pitch together in a coherent, balanced manner. But surely there had to have been a few missteps and miscalculations along the road that led to this player ...

... becoming a left back.