Back in the Game

Soccer star Ali Krieger is finally back on the field after a career-threatening injury, and ready to lead the new National Women’s Soccer League to primetime.

     “I remember it so clearly,” says U.S. Women’s National Team soccer star Ali Krieger, in a voice that is soft but laced with the unmissable self-certainty of a high-level athlete. She’s talking about the U.S. team’s Olympic-qualifying game versus the Dominican Republic in January 2012. “Shannon Boxx laid the ball back to me—bit of a hospital pass, no pun intended—and I went in, shot with my right and landed with my right …. and then the girl [Leonela Mojica] came in and hit me in the side of my knee.” Krieger’s leg buckled sideways before she hit the ground, and teammates gathered to calm her as she was stretchered off.

     “I was thinking, OK, maybe it’s not so bad,” says the Northern Virginia native, who grew up in Woodbridge and Montclair. But it was worse. A tear in a soccer player’s anterior cruciate ligament, medial cruciate ligament or meniscus means months on the sideline. Krieger had torn all three. “When I found out it was an ACL-MCL-meniscus, I immediately started crying,” recalls Krieger. “It was just me, the U.S. team doctor and the MRI guy, and it was Saturday so the hospital was pretty empty. I just started bawling. They told me everything was fine, but I had been at the top of my career, on cloud nine.”

     After a standout performance at right back in the U.S. team’s run to the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final, where a global audience of 59 million saw Krieger and her teammates lose narrowly on penalty kicks to Japan, Krieger had set her sights on gold at the London 2012 Olympics.

     Despite undergoing reconstructive surgery on her knee at Commonwealth Orthopaedics in Arlington, and “nine to five rehab … that became my job,” says Krieger, she didn’t return to action in time to make the U.S. Olympic team, which went on to win without her by beating Japan 2-1 in the August 2012 gold medal match. She did return to her club team, Germany’s FFC Frankfurt, (professional soccer players are employed full time by their club teams and earn selection for their national teams based on performance) and was back in action that September.

     Women’s soccer in the U.S. has seen two professional leagues fold due to financial instability in the past decade, despite the popularity of the U.S. Women’s National Team, so players like Krieger have had to venture overseas to find professional opportunities. Krieger joined FFC Frankfurt in 2008. “It’s toughened me up,” she says. Moving to Germany at the age of 23 was a culture shock. “I was right out of college,” she recalls. “I wanted to come home after three months.” But Krieger committed to life in Germany, just as she would later commit to rehab, learning the language and adapting to the culture. “Germans are direct and blunt,” she says, and thinks this has made her a better professional. “Now, when a coach says that I need to be better I say ‘OK.’ I don’t take offense. And I’m so punctual now, I’m at least 10 minutes early for everything!”

     Krieger returned to Northern Virginia earlier this year, determined to play her role in finally establishing women’s professional soccer in the U.S. “It was the perfect time to come home,” she says. Unlike its predecessors, the new National Women’s Soccer League, which began league play in April, is a “foundation we can build off,” says Krieger, because it’s backed by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which will subsidize the salaries of marketable national team players like Krieger, relieving the burden on each team’s finances.

     Krieger will play for the Washington Spirit franchise and, as the local girl made good, will be the team’s most bankable name. “Every national team player should be supporting this league,” she says, “because this is something bigger than ourselves right now, and if we want this league to survive, the best players need to play in it.” As a teenager in Northern Virginia, Krieger says she “grew up watching Mia Hamm and Steffi Jones, who played for the [Washington] Freedom in the Women’s United Soccer Association for the three years that WUSA was alive,” and she feels a duty to ensure the next generation of potential stars get that same exposure to professional women’s soccer that she did.

     Though Krieger missed out on Olympic gold, she is now back where she wants to be—on the U.S. national team, working to permanently reclaim her spot at right back. Krieger’s teammates did not forget her during the Olympics—“They emailed and Tweeted at me all the time,” she says, “and when Megan [Rapinoe] held up a ‘Happy Birthday’ sign during the Columbia game, they made me feel like I was still a part of it.”

     Teammates welcomed Krieger back to national team practice in early 2013 with a surprise mid-interview pie-in-the-face. “Just their way of showing how much they missed me!” she laughs. But when Krieger returned to the field in the national team’s 4-1 win over Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida, in February, it was all business. Krieger didn’t miss a beat, delivering her trademark mix of defensive know-how and attacking threat down the right flank. Even better, she scored her first international goal in a 5-0 win over China at the Algarve Cup tournament in March, a tournament the U.S. went on to win.

     “Now I’m back with the national team, it feels like I’m finally back,” Krieger says. And she already has her eye on victory at the 2015 Women’s World Cup: “This time I want to get gold.”

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