Why Washington Traded Away USWNT Star Crystal Dunn

Crystal Dunn is one of America’s brightest stars. The 2015 NWSL MVP scored 15 goals in 21 matches that season and is an entrenched member of Jill Ellis’ national team. So why did Washington trade away her rights to North Carolina when she decided to return from a year abroad in England? The Crystal Dunn trade explains a lot about how the Spirit are planning to rebuild. 

There’s no doubt Dunn is one of the hottest commodities in the NWSL. A proven goal scorer and a USWNT star, Dunn is a premier player to help a team win on the field and market itself off the pitch. So it seems a bit odd the Spirit, who finished dead last in 2017, would trade her away, receiving Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith in return. 

Dunn, after a lukewarm 2016 (at least compared to her 2015), followed a number of other American stars overseas and spent 2017 with Chelsea. She helped the Blues win the FA WSL Spring Series. With the USWNT set to prepare for the 2019 World Cup with a couple small tournaments and qualifying, Dunn opted to return stateside.

For a native New Yorker who went to the University of North Carolina, returning to the Tar Heel state makes sense for Dunn, but not so much for Washington, at least at first glance. 

Crystal Dunn trade

The Crystal Dunn trade sends the USWNT forward to North Carolina, where she played college ball. Photo: @FreeportPatch | Twitter

Washington struggled in all areas last season, with a -18 goal differential that was the worst in the league. The Spirit need a lot of help, not just one star to come in and turn things around. The Crystal Dunn trade lets them do just that.

When Dunn left Washington for London, she was essentially replaced in the lineup by Mallory Pugh. While not an exact like-for-like replacement, Pugh provided a team-high six goals and an assist in 13 starts and 16 total appearances for the Spirit last season at the young age of 19. She’s not quite at Dunn’s level yet, but at six years younger, Pugh provides more upside for Washington.

So the Spirit decided to trade Dunn for two players who are also younger but can still start immediately in the nation’s capital. 

Ashley Hatch, the No. 2 selection in last year’s draft, was the 2017 Rookie of the Year after tying a rookie record with seven goals for the Courage. The 22-year-old is a tall forward who can complement Pugh; Washington hopes the pair can develop a partnership that will be the lynchpin of the team’s attack for many years to come.

“Ashley had tremendous success in her rookie season and it is rare that any player achieves what she did in their first season in the NWSL,” Spirit GM and coach Jim Gabarra said in a Spirit news release. “Her natural ability to score goals is something all teams search for.”

Crystal Dunn trade

Ashley Hatch will go to Washington as part of the Crystal Dunn trade. Photo: @byuROC | Twitter

Taylor Smith, while not as flashy as a goal scorer, helps shore up the Spirit’s defense. The 24-year-old right back and UCLA grad has made seven national team appearances and shows no signs of being dropped from the USWNT anytime soon. 

“Taylor has developed into one of the best right backs in the NWSL,” Gabarra said. “She has performed very well both with the national team and the Courage, and has been part of winning teams her entire career. She will be a difference maker for us.”

But Washington’s makeover doesn’t end there. The Spirit also have the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NWSL College Draft. It is expected they will take central midfielder Andi Sullivan with that choice.

Sullivan, 22, has seven caps with the USWNT and won the Hermann Trophy (given to the nation’s best college player) after helping Stanford win the 2017 national title

With Sullivan, Smith and Hatch joining Pugh, Washington has four young starters to build a team around. The Spirit were runners-up in 2016 but never finished better than fourth in their other four seasons. 

For their part, the N.C. Courage now have two of the best forwards in the game in Dunn and Lynn Williams, the 2015 and 2016 MVP and Golden Boot winners. North Carolina finished the 2017 regular season in first place in their inaugural season but lost to Portland 1-0 in the final. By adding Dunn (and an international roster spot), the Courage will again be a force in 2018. 

The Crystal Dunn trade wasn’t the only movement among NWSL teams this week as front offices are jostling for players and draft picks ahead of the 2018 NWSL College Draft on Thursday. Notably, the Houston Dash sent Brazilian creator Andressinha to Portland while USWNT midfielder Allie Long went to Seattle. But no team has rebuilt itself as much as Washington.

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