Crystal Dunn was the last player cut from the previous championship-winning United States World Cup team

By Helen Murphy
June 06, 2019 12:32 PM

The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in France on Friday, and the U.S. women’s national soccer team is gearing up for a fight.

It’ll be the first World Cup for Crystal Dunn, who was the last player cut from the previous World Cup team in 2015 and is now looking forward to joining her new teammates in France.

“I’m really excited,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m just prepared for whatever — it’s a really long tournament so I’m just staying focused on what’s in front of me.”

Dunn, 26, says that getting the call that she was cut from the last World Cup team was “one of the harder things I’ve gone through” but doesn’t regret the experience.

“It’s made me stronger, it’s made me grow in ways that I wouldn’t have grown if I didn’t have to go through a challenging moment like that,” the soccer player, who is partnering with Walgreens and P&G’s Secret and Olay products, shares.

She adds: “Looking back, it all worked out, but in that moment I was like, ‘Wow, this is really awful.’ ”

Mark Cunningham/Getty

After being cut from the team, Dunn says she had to relearn her love of soccer as she played for various National Women’s Soccer League clubs.

“I think for a little bit I was like, ‘Wow, this is a disappointing moment, soccer’s not fun, it’s not fun if you’re not chosen for a team,’ ” she says. “I had to regroup and be like, ‘No, I still love this game and I want to continue getting better, I want to fight hard every single day in training.’ That’s really what put me back on track.”

Crystal Dunn

Now heading into the tournament, Dunn is holding onto the “great” feeling of getting this year’s call that she had made the team.

“It’s been four years that I’ve been waiting for this moment,” she shares. “It was a great moment for me.”

The women’s national team won the last World Cup in 2015, and they’re looking to defend their title at this year’s tournament, which begins on Friday and ends one month later, on July 7.

“There’s a handful of teams,” Dunn says about who she considers tough competition in this year’s tournament. “I think France is a strong team, Australia’s always tough to play against, Sweden’s in our group, they always bring their best game against us all the time. It’s gonna be interesting.”

“The World Cup is a really long tournament, so you have to prepare for whatever,” Dunn continues. “You think one team might not put up a fight as much, but then all of a sudden you play them and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, did you guys get better all of a sudden?’ So I think we are just preparing for everyone to bring their best game against us.”

The U.S. women’s national soccer team
Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In March, on International Women’s Day, the championship-winning soccer team — including Dunn — took a stand for equal pay, filing a federal gender discrimination lawsuit to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

In the lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles federal court under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, all 28 female players claimed that they are not paid equally to the men’s national players.

“It was a collective agreement, so we all got on board, we all know that there’s strength in power and numbers,” Dunn tells PEOPLE. “This isn’t something one person felt, it was something that we, as a group, felt like was right.”

She continues: “It’s important because I think if you have a voice you should use it, and if you have a platform you should use it. We feel like as athletes we don’t just kick a ball for a living. We’re human beings, we have feelings and we have a way that we want to live life.”

“I think for us taking this step is really important for those that feel like they don’t have a voice,” the soccer star says. “It’s important for us to speak for them.”