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Breaking down Crystal Dunn’s Thorns debut

Everyone knows Dunn is an incredible player, and fans finally got their first look at how the midfielder will impact the Portland Thorns this season.

Thorns FC/Craig Mitchelldyer

Crystal Dunn played her first match for the Portland Thorns on Wednesday night in Providence Park. The Thorns won the match against their Cascadia rivals OL Reign 2-0 and clinched a spot in the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Final.

Portland dominated throughout the match. The midfield dictated the tempo and put the Reign under immense pressure. It was a strong showing, especially since it was the first time the Thorns got to utilize their international players.

The Thorns rolled out their typical diamond midfield composed of Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Angela Salem, and Christine Sinclair. This midfield was an important component that led to the Thorns' dominance.

“The midfield is really fluid,” said Dunn in the post-match press conference. “It’s really fun to be in a position where you know everyone around you is moving and trying to show for the ball and getting on the ball, and I tend to do way better when I’m not put in a box and when I’m told that I can be free and really express myself.”

Dunn did not get on the scoresheet in her debut, but she was an integral part of the Thorns’ success on both sides of the ball. She was given a kind of box-to-box free role that allowed her to drift around the midfield and final third, but was required to get back and defend on one side of the midfield diamond.

Defensive Prowess

Dunn showed her intelligence in defense immediately despite the new system that she was plugged into. She did well to put herself in a good position to read passing lanes and snuff out the intended pass.

She was 2-for-2 on tackles and tracked back well to recover possession and cut out dangerous opportunities. Dunn’s ability to see the play unfold before it happened helped Portland limit the Reign in transition. In the 26th minute, Dunn was positioned just above her attacking 18-yard box. The ball floated toward the Reign’s Bethany Balcer and Dunn took off toward her. Balcer headed it to King and Dunn immediately changed routes. She did not run to King. Instead, she read the angle and sprinted into space where she eventually recovered the ball after a heavy touch from King.

Dunn tracked back into her own penalty area and put in an important challenge that deflected Celia’s cross, intended for the on-rushing Tziarra King, to the feet of Natalia Kuikka, who cleared to safety three minutes later.

Defense to Offense

Dunn was also key to winning the ball back and turning defense into offense. She completed five of her seven duels and made 10 recoveries, which often sparked counterattacks.

Dunn’s ability to do this was almost immediately evident and the Thorns made use of it with strikers Sophia Smith and Simone Charley running off the back shoulder of the defense. In the fifth minute, Dunn recovered the ball, turned out of pressure, and played a cross-field pass to Smith.

Kelli Hubly lofted a long ball that was intended for Charley 10 minutes later. Dunn was able to position herself under the ball, take it around Quinn with a deft touch. The play continued and eventually, Smith won the foul that led to the opening goal.

A similar sequence took place in the 23rd minute. Kuikka headed a Bardsley goal kick straight into the air. Dunn battled with Quinn again and won the ball. She took a touch into space and played Lindsey Horan into the open space in midfield.

Dunn’s Runs

Obviously, Dunn was also very influential in possession. Her ability to slow the game down while under pressure and make a half-turn or a quick touch to create separation opened up passing lanes in a world-class manner, helping the Thorns play out of the Reign’s pressure with ease.

She also demonstrated her spatial awareness in this new midfield set-up to put herself in dangerous positions. The Thorns struggled to find Dunn when she made these runs, but that understanding is sure to come with more time.

Early in the match, Dunn made a slow run off the back shoulder of the defender and then burst into the defender's blind spot. She received the ball on the run and already knew Sinclair was making a dangerous run into the box. Dunn played a pin-point ball to Sinclair but she was caught offside.

In the ninth minute, the whistle prevented another chance for the Thorns created by a Dunn run. Smith chipped a ball into the area intended for Charley. The Vanderbilt alumna collided with the keeper and eventually a foul was called. But Dunn displayed her great reading of the game to beat both of the Reign defenders beside her to the ball and fired a shot wide.

It looked as though Dunn would get her first goal for the Thorns in the 54th minute. She made a clever run into the box near the penalty area. Smith tried to provide the assist, but Quinn made an important intervention to prevent the shot.

As the game progressed, it looked more and more likely that Dunn would get her chance, but her runs weren’t found. Around the 60-minute mark, Sinclair found Rocky Rodriguez and Dunn started her run into the Thorns’ offensive half. Rodriguez played the ball to Charley in space and she drove at the defense. Charley evaded the first challenge which forced Celia to leave Dunn to try and help stop the ball. Dunn was unmarked at the top of the 18-yard box, but Charley elected to shoot from distance.

The No. 10 Role

Sinclair came off in the 69th minute and Dunn occupied the No. 10 role for the remainder of the match.

“It’s so incredible to really be in the midfield where all the players,” said Dunn, “Yes, we have a role, but it’s all about us getting on the ball and being in the best spaces to impact the game and sliding into the 10 for me late in the game felt pretty natural because even when I was an eight, I was kind of popping into that space and then popping back into that eight role again.”

At the 10, Dunn was given more license to get forward with less defensive responsibilities. She operated in-between the lines and looked to run at the backline and play that final, defense-splitting pass.

“I think, for me, it’s just getting on the ball as much as I can, causing a bit of havoc and obviously, running at the backline whenever I can,” said Dunn. “It’s my first game under the belt. I’m just going to continue growing and gaining that chemistry with the players around me even more.”

It should be scary for other teams that this chemistry is going to improve, because Dunn and Morgan Weaver have demonstrated a good understanding of each other’s game already.

Dunn continuously found Weaver in space with lofted balls and line-splitting passes which created three goal-scoring chances. The first stemmed from a chipped pass that found Weaver at the top of the 18-yard box. Weaver fired a rocket just wide.

Minutes later, Weaver won the ball in midfield and passed to Dunn. Weaver sprinted into space and Dunn found her with an inch-perfect ball over the top. Weaver squared to Horan, whose shot went wide.

In the 90th minute, Weaver, Dunn, Horan, and Rodriguez linked up to create another swift attacking move. Rodriguez found Dunn in the center circle. She turned and played a one-two with Horan. Then Dunn took one touch to settle and played a pass that eliminated the defender and sent Weaver in on goal. Weaver’s shot was unable to find the back of the net and hit the side netting.

Everyone knows the influence Dunn can have on a match. Her ability to come into her first competitive match with the team and play multiple positions in the midfield gave Thorns fans a small taste of what she is capable of in this team. Dunn will only continue to get a better understanding of the Thorns’ style but has already proven that she is going to be a force to be reckoned with in an already strong Portland side.