In 2015, during the World Cup, I had a routine.
I did it before every match.
I’d put on my USA hat, pull it down real low so nobody could see my face … and then I’d head to the nearest soccer bar in the neighborhood I was living outside Maryland. And that’s where I watched my friends, my teammates and my heroes win the World Cup in Vancouver.
In some packed, dingy bar, with a hat covering most of my face so that no one would recognize me — Crystal Dunn, the last cut from the 2015 World Cup-winning USWNT — is where I ended up experiencing one of the greatest triumphs in our country’s sporting history.
There’s no sugar-coating that time in my life. It was a really weird sensation. On one hand, I was thrilled for all those girls. I knew them so well from the junior ranks to the senior camps, and to our club teams — they were my family. They were my girls, you know?? But on the other hand … man I was close. So close. Like everything you dream about as a soccer player in this country, it was right there in front of me a few weeks before. Until it wasn’t. I hated myself for feeling even a little conflicted — I shouldn’t be jealous. Be supportive! But all I wanted, so badly, was to be a part of that group. To help my team. To represent my country.
Martin Rose/FIFA/Getty Image
That’s life, though, isn’t it?
And life has a weird way of leading you to appreciation.
Those days in the bars, I couldn’t have done them alone. I needed a viewing partner who knew the game, someone I could cheer with, someone I could vent to. I had a friend named Pierre, an athletic trainer with the Portland Thorns who lived in the area. I would text him to come down and catch a game. Like I said, it could be … difficult for me to watch sometimes. And I can only imagine what it was like to watch with me. Depending on the game, or the score, I’d be cheering hard or sulking in my seat.
The great thing about Pierre, though, was that he always kept everything positive. He reminded me that just because I wasn’t there in Canada didn’t mean I wasn’t a contributing factor in the success that the team was having during the tournament. I think I already knew, deep down, what he was saying. But there was just something about hearing it from somebody else (who isn’t your mom or your dad) that makes you feel reassured.
When we watched the final, and Carli Lloyd did the impossible and the entire country lost its mind, Pierre could see how badly I wished I was there. He told me how important this day was for the sport in the U.S., and then he said a very simple thing, but maybe one I had forgotten.
“Crystal … you know there’s another one in four years, right?”
Smart guy, that Pierre.
Four years later, that guy’s my husband. So how about that? Missed the World Cup, and gained a husband. I don’t know if I’d call it a completely fair trade … but I’m learning to live with it, haha!
Oh, and the weirdest thing? Guess where Pierre is from….
So maybe we’re going to have to pay his family a visit this summer — you know, if I’m ever in the area for some reason.
The thing that made it so hard to get that call from Jill Ellis in 2015, letting me know I wouldn’t be at the World Cup, was that I felt like I’d lost what I love most about putting on the U.S. kit: representation.
That’s the thing that turned soccer from a thing I did with friends, to a possible career.
I went to high school in Rockville Center on Long Island. It’s this small, soccer-loving town that my parents moved to, from Queens, before my brother and I were born. When I played for our school team, I just remember walking through the halls on Fridays with my jersey on, and all of these people coming up to me and saying, “We’ll be at the game tonight, Crystal. We can’t wait!” And that feeling of like, “O.K., wow, I’m playing in this game, which means I’m representing this school and our entire neighborhood.” I didn’t care about the trophies. I wanted the people in the stands — my classmates — to be proud of us. That’s the feeling that I never wanted to go away.
I saw it in other athletes, too.
My first hero was Serena Williams. No contest.
If you watch Serena, and you think she’s that good because she wants trophies, or money, or success for herself … you’re missing the point.
When I watch Serena, I see a person who knows — who appreciates — how hard her parents worked to give her a chance. A person who wants to repay that debt at every opportunity and make her family proud.
I also see a black girl, setting records in a predominantly white sport. And when I watch her, it’s hard not to think that, in a way, she’s playing for me, right? Even though, of course, she isn’t — and she’s never met me. But that’s what the great athletes do. They connect with you.
They represent you.
Remember how I said earlier that I used to wear a hat to the bar so nobody would recognize me? That was true, but I mean, nobody was really going to recognize me anyway. I just liked the hat. Not too many people notice me in public, which is nice. But last year, on a flight, someone did notice me. And it changed my life.
I was playing for Chelsea in 2018, and I was flying back to London from a national team camp. You know that strange feeling you get when someone is staring at the back of your head?? I had that feeling. So I sort of turn my head back over my shoulder, and I see a little girl, maybe 12 or 13. We make eye contact for a split second — and then she puts her head down, trying to make it seem like she wasn’t looking at me. She had a note in her hands. I tried my best to flash a smile at her a few times, to make her feel comfortable, but she was pretty shy. So I turn back around. But then a few minutes later, I get a tap on my shoulder.
I said, “Oh, hey there.”
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
And then she let it all out. She told me how big a fan of mine she was. How much she loved watching women’s soccer and specifically the USWNT. She was flying back to Kenya with her family. She was so sweet, it was … incredible. I asked if she wanted a photo, she said yes. We took a selfie and she went back to her seat.
A few minutes later, another tap. “Hi, Crystal. Sorry. I came all the way over here and forgot to give you the note I wrote. But please, you can’t open it until I get back to my seat. Promise me, O.K.?”
“Promise.” I opened the note. It was about how she was inspired by me because there aren’t many girls who look like me, like her, who play soccer on TV when she watches.
That just broke me. It took me a long time to realize that, when I was playing high school soccer, I was the only black girl playing in a town of 25,000; and how weird that was for me. Or how my black friends would react when I said I was going to soccer practice; and how weird that seemed to them.
And now there was this little Kenyan girl, a few rows behind me, saying that what I was doing in my life mattered to her.
That matters to me.
When I put on our U.S. kit, I do it for my family and for my country. But I understand now that I also do it for every single American girl out there who wants to see someone who looks like them — someone whose story reminds them of their own — when they watch their women’s national team.
I do it for the girls who want to turn on the TV and see a piece of themselves.
In 2015, I was one of those girls.
This summer? I’ll be on the TV.