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Crystal Dunn’s role at left back has been revitalized under Vlatko Andonovski

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Andonovski has developed a tactical scheme to get more out of Crystal Dunn’s attacking talents, even though she is still playing out of position.

Colombia v United States Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Crystal Dunn has always been an attacker. Whether she is in the midfield or in a forward role, Dunn is at her best in the final third. Dunn demonstrated this throughout her career in the NWSL, but to play consistently with the U.S. Women’s National Team, she had to adapt to a new position. Under former national team coach Jill Eillis, Dunn was converted to a left back. Since the conversion Dunn has been overlooked for the midfield and attacking positions.

Despite the position change at the international level, Dunn continued to succeed and became a regular in the starting eleven. Throughout the 2019 World Cup in France, opponents targeted her as a potential weak link in the USWNT. She brushed those challenges aside as she put in one top performance after another at left back. The most notable performance came in the quarterfinals against France when Dunn pocketed Kadidiatou Diani.

Dunn and the USWNT obviously went on to win the World Cup and Jill Ellis decided to end her time as the USWNT coach on a high. Vlatko Andonovski secured the job and immediately Dunn’s role on the national team changed. This was on full display in both matches against Colombia held in Exploria Stadium in Orlando, FL last week.

Under Ellis the attacker-turned-defender played as a traditional left back. She defended well and when the USWNT entered the final third, Dunn provided overlapping runs down the left.

Colombia v United States Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Andonovski has developed a system that offers Dunn more freedom to create and use her ability in the final third to unlock defenses. Overall, Dunn is much more involved in the attack. She still provides overlaps, but these runs have become more effective because they are less predictable. Now, Dunn makes more underlapping runs, tucks into the midfield, and finds her way into the opponent’s 18-yard box.

In the first match against Colombia, this new scheme was on full display and, much to the delight of Thorns fans, Dunn and Lindsey Horan terrorized the left flank. Horan drifted there often to combine with Dunn. When Horan drove the ball to the endline, Dunn tucked into the midfield. The two Thorns players played quick one-twos to release each other down the flank as well.

Megan Rapinoe was also involved in these combinations. Rapinoe, who likes to cut in on her right foot, provided Horan and Dunn with lots of room to operate on the left flank. The three players displayed an interchangeability and fluidity in the final third, creating space for each other. Dunn even flanked Rapinoe at times, almost like a second left winger.

In the 13th minute, Dunn made a slashing run towards the top of the box and Rapinoe found her. Dunn’s shot flew over the bar, but it was evidence of her new found freedom in attack.

When Dunn drifted into the midfield, she found space on the left, but also drifted into central channels behind the forward in the space that a traditional number 10 operates. Her runs into the box and close control at the top of the area allowed her to get into more shooting positions, which is exactly what happened in the 43rd minute. Sandra Sepúlveda denied Dunn with a spectacular save.

Dunn’s role defensively has also been tweaked by Andonovski. Andonovski has clearly been working with the USWNT on pinning back their opponents via a high press and winning the ball in the opponent’s half. The forwards and two of the midfielders initiate the press and Julie Ertz and the full backs are tasked with picking the ball up midfield when the opponents are unable to play out of the press.

Colombia v United States Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Dunn pinches high and pressures anyone receiving the ball on the left. She also recovers possession in midfield when they clear their lines. This is another new tactical wrinkle in Andonovski’s system that allows Dunn to challenge for and win back balls at midfield. It also allows her to get the ball higher up the pitch when she wins it. When Dunn wins the ball, she is able to quickly unlock defenses, making use her midfield skills.

Colombia is not the best litmus test for the USWNT — especially when working on a high press — because regardless of the system, the U.S. would expect to have the ball the most. But we saw this same scheme work wonders against the Netherlands. The U.S. repeatedly won the ball in dangerous positions and put the Dutch under immense pressure, and Dunn’s role was quite similar.

In the second half of the match on Friday, Andonovski substituted Dunn in as a left winger much to the delight of USWNT stans everywhere. She showcased her dribbling ability and pace in her attacking role. Dunn provides the USWNT attack another option that teams don’t necessarily gameplan for. She is unpredictable and is effective in all areas of the pitch.

It was clear, and has always been clear, that Dunn is a top level attacker and can play for the USWNT in this position. Just look at that turn. You can’t teach that innate, instinctual movement but it is something that can unlock a tough defense when everything else is falling short. Dunn has that individual quality that is impossible to account for.

Dunn also took corners from both sides of the pitch. She had Portland fans smiling when she assisted Horan in the 73rd minute.

It’s unlikely that Dunn will get consistent minutes in the attack. Without knocks to Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith, she may not have had this opportunity. But the two matches against Colombia demonstrated that Andonovski knows how impactful Dunn can be, and he has developed patterns of play and tactical nuances that allow her to get forward into the positions where she thrives.