We can – and should – celebrate Crystal Dunn without expecting her to set a pregnancy standard


Portland Thorns FC’s Crystal Dunn celebrates her goal while defeating San Diego Wave FC in the NWSL Semifinals at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon on October 23, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Getty Images)

As someone who had to replace their refrigerator this month, I know this most certainly I had groceries in my fridge that were older than the five months between Crystal Dunn’s birth and her first goal of the season. Pushing Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson joke further, I had plenty to eat for more than the three months between giving birth and training with her professional team.

It was 156 days from their goal, to be precise, and it came into injury time, sending the Thorns into the NWSL championship game and 22,035 fans at Providence Park in pure euphoria. It’s been a tough, tough month for the league after Sally Yates’ report detailed sexual harassment by three coaches, including former Thorns manager Paul Riley. But October will end on a historic first for the NWSL when the championship game between the Thorns and Kansas City Current will air prime time on CBS (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET) from Audi Field in Washington, DC

One of the most prominent stars on the pitch will be Dunn, a defender for the United States women’s soccer team who said she is considering staying on maternity leave for the entire 2022 season. The 2019 World Champion gave birth to her first son Marcel on May 20th. A month later she was training. And 18 weeks later she played in her first game. It’s an extraordinary return story that, because of its subject matter, has caught the covers of sports sites and social accounts that might otherwise not have given an NWSL story such prominent attention.

While we celebrate achievement, we should also caution against selling it as a barometer or making it a role model for all athletes, let alone women. Every journey back from pregnancy is different, Dunn said, and it has had benefits many don’t have access to. No one should be held to such a high standard after a medical procedure that is described as routine, even though it is a physically traumatic experience that can have minor to major complications.

Wilkinson also warned after the win, adding that Dunn’s return “was carefully managed with a lot of very, very experienced people supporting her return to the game.”

The reason Dunn might even consider extended leave is because of maternity leave, which has been slowly introduced into women’s sport through more recent collective bargaining agreements. If there is a role model in this story – and society loves to position women as constant role models – it is that maternity leave should be the standard.

FIFA, the sport’s governing body, has mandated maternity leave of at least 14 weeks in 2020, paid at least two-thirds of a player’s full salary. US Soccer will be taken on parental leave for an agreed amount for a maximum of six months. The NWSL’s latest CBA introduced eight weeks of paid parental leave. The United States, on the other hand, is one of six countries worldwide that does not offer paid parental leave.

That’s the first pillar of Dunn’s support: being able to work on her own schedule without worrying about returning for money or a roster spot. That wasn’t always the case, and it isn’t for many women in the US. And while some players plan their pregnancies around athletic plans, it’s not always an option. It’s not fair either.

Portland Thorns FC defenseman Crystal Dunn with her husband Pierre Soubrier and son Marcel at Providence Park on June 19, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

World Champion Sydney Leroux said she planned to have a baby in March 2019 and play most of the NWSL season. But she suffered a miscarriage, which accounts for an estimated 25% of all known pregnancies, and had to keep trying to have a second child. Leroux gave birth to their daughter in June 2019 and returned to the pitch three months later in an emotional moment.

The next pillar is individualized physical and emotional support at a high level. Dunn’s husband is Thorns athletic trainer Pierre Soubrier, who provides her with an in-house guide to postpartum recovery and elite training. It’s hard to say that most women don’t have it. Most athletes don’t even have that, although they have easier access.

Alex Morgan, whose San Diego Wave was on the wrong side of Dunn’s game winner, worked with a personal trainer after the birth of their daughter Charlie in 2020. Both stars continued to train throughout their pregnancy with individual, detailed plans.

They weren’t the first and they won’t be the last. Chicago Red Stars’ Kealia Watt gave birth to her first child with husband and NFL star JJ Watt on Sunday. Each story is unique and important as more women take advantage of having children while still playing.

“I’m not the first athlete to be pregnant and giving birth and having a career and being a mother at the same time,” said Dunn, “but I feel more and more that we can talk about our experiences and push so that the next generation also feels Having the opportunity to do that is setting up the future.”

Dunn’s return to lead the Thorns to the title game is extraordinary and should be celebrated. It is not possible without the hard work, dedication and perseverance of a person whose life has been turned upside down.

However, that doesn’t mean it has to be the standard. If we get one thing from this, let it be that maternity policy is the real winner here. It gave her the opportunity to return safely on her own terms. These coincidentally led to a title game.


When: Saturday 8:00 p.m. ET from Audi Field in Washington, DC

TV: CBS and Paramount+

About the thorns: Portland finished second on the NWSL table with 39 points (10-3-9). They led the league in goals (49) and goal difference (25) by a double-digit margin. Portland prevailed with a 2-1 win over third-place San Diego Wave.

Midfielder Sam Coffey and forward Sophia Smith were named to the 2022 Best XI First Team this week. Coffey, a contender for Rookie of the Year, has an 83% passing rate and a 70% tackle clip. Smith, who was named MVP on Thursday, finished second in the golden boot race behind Alex Morgan (16). Her 14 goals was a season record for Portland.

Defensemen Kelli Hubly and Becky Sauerbrunn made the second team list. Midfielder Yazmeen Ryan had five assists, the second-highest in the regular season.

About the stream: The Current, formerly based in Utah, is entering its second season in Kansas City. They finished fifth with 36 points (10-6-6), tied on points with the Houston Dash and even had 29 goals for and 29 goals against. Kansas City advanced with a 2-1 win over The Dash and a 2-0 win over league leaders OL Reign.

Midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta was named to the Best XI First Team. LaBonta had a career-best seven goals in 20 regular-season games, a tally that ranked eighth in the league. Kristen Hamilton and CeCe Kizer each scored seven points.

Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and defender Hailie Mace formed the second team. In 22 games, the French finished second with saves (77) and gave up 26 goals for a 1.18 clean sheet average.

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