‘We are the voice.’ USWNT players return to Courage with invigoration to grow league.

Despite it being her first time on the world’s ultimate stage, Crystal Dunn had an idea of what to expect.

She expected to win.

Dunn was part of the U.S. Women’s National Team that earlier this month won the 2019 World Cup, the international soccer tournament where the U.S. had constant command of the spotlight and was the team to beat.

In seven games, the USWNT earned 26 goals (13 more than the next-best total), had a field-leading 16 assists and a triumphant, “indescribable” moment unlike anything else offered in the sport.

But winning wasn’t the only thing Dunn expected from the World Cup. The Carolina Courage and former UNC defender told The News & Observer Wednesday that she expected to be more than an athlete this summer. She knew going into the World Cup that she would be there representing more than just herself, her team and her country.

“(USWNT players) always are helping pave the way for women’s soccer, and I think it’s important that we know that going into every major event, that we are the voice,” Dunn said. “And I think us winning the World Cup, hearing the chants in the final, ‘Equal pay, equal pay,’ you know, people know what we stand for.”

Now, Dunn and her three Courage and USWNT teammates -- Jessica McDonald, Abby Dahlkemper and Samantha Mewis --who returned from the World Cup earlier this week, said they’re planning to repurpose the enthusiasm their play garnered and use it to invigorate the rest of the NWSL.

“We’re very grateful,” said Mewis, a midfielder who scored twice and started all six games she played in the World Cup. “It’s our seventh season. It’s awesome. But we want this to get better. We want it to grow.”

At a media availability Wednesday at WakeMed Soccer Park, Courage head coach Paul Riley agreed with Mewis.

“(The World Cup) has been massive for us and the league, but we have to continue it,” Riley said. “They have to have that quality that they showed in France here now, and that goes for every player that’s in the league.”

One of the immediate outputs World Cup players saw amid their nation-captivating run was the NWSL’s television deal with ESPN made earlier this month, which guarantees 14 NWSL matches being broadcasted on different ESPN channels. The NC Courage, also, recently revealed its plan to build a new sports and entertainment complex south of Raleigh.

“We are always pushing this sport to get better and better, and a lot of people give us backlash, saying, ‘Oh, you guys get paid well, though,’ or, ‘You guys, you know, should be happy with what you got,’” Dunn said. “It’s not about being happy with where you are. It’s about always pushing the limit and always fighting for more, and for fighting for what’s right.”

Dahlkemper, a defender, said that providing equal resources and promoting parity in the league is vital for the league’s growth.

“Making the league feel secure, and that it’s thriving and moving in the right direction, I think that’s really important,” Dahlkemper said.

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Alex is an intern at The News and Observer, covering sports and however it intersects with life in the Triangle. Before that, Alex graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May and was a three-year staffer on UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.