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For decorated Krieger, NWSL Championship as important as any title

Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

With deep ties to D.C., Ali Krieger has more invested in Sunday's final than most. As Jeff Kassouf found out, the NWSL Championship is as important as any game, to the U.S. international.

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HOUSTON – This week’s itinerary isn’t anything new for Ali Krieger. There are media interview responsibilities, a few final training sessions in which every touch and every play counts that much more, all culminating with the big game this weekend.

Having done it numerous times, in different colors and on multiple continents, Krieger could be forgiven if she went through the motions. She has won a World Cup, played in the Olympics and has a UEFA Champions League winner’s medal. In comparison, Sunday could be viewed as winning a conference title in college after winning a national championship the year prior – nice, but not the big prize.

Ali Krieger doesn’t buy into any of that.

There is a little bit of pressure of wanting to carry the team on my back, but I think we’ve naturally done that all season together. We’ve all been on the same page. There is no individual player. We always play as a team."

- Krieger

Despite her decorated career in Germany and five strong seasons with in Washington (between the Freedom in Women’s Professional Soccer [WPS] and the NWSL’s Spirit), Sunday is Krieger’s first domestic-league championship game. Sitting in the swanky President’s Club Suite of BBVA Compass Stadium as the Spirit went through the championship-week motions for the first time, Krieger spoke with the same exuberance and energy as she has in similar situations, most recently in New York and Vancouver in the days and weeks before the United States’ 2015 World Cup triumph.

“This is just as great for me. I hold this league just as high as the national team, and my teammates,” Krieger told FourFourTwo. “This is the organization I’ve been playing with for the past four seasons. I’m super loyal to my club and my organization, and I think that just coming from the inaugural season, being one of the worst teams in the league, and leaving Germany where we were on top of the world – I won a Champions League and the treble – then being in (Washington) and having one of the worst seasons, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Devastated.

“But, I knew that could only motivate me to want to get better for this club and for this team. Now, looking back and seeing just how much success we’ve had this past season is just so rewarding, and I’m thrilled to be in the final. I can check it off my bucket list. This is something that I’ve wanted for my entire career, to win a championship in the United States, in the NWSL, would be a dream come true for me.”

Actions always speak louder than words. U.S. players’ slow return from last year’s World Cup was a source of friction between NWSL coaches left in the dark and U.S. Soccer. There were some similar communication issues between teams, players and the federation following this Olympics. But Krieger’s returned to the Spirit less than a week after the United States’ shocking Olympic quarterfinal exit to play in an important make-up game in Houston, epitomizing her valuation of the league.

The road less traveled

Krieger helped FFC Frankfurt win the treble in the 2007-2008 season, claiming league and cup titles in Germany along with a Champions League title, joining teammate Gina Lewandowski as the first American to achieve that feat. Krieger played briefly on loan with the Washington Freedom in WPS in 2009 before returning to Germany at a time when all of the best Americans – and many of the world’s top international stars, including five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta – were in WPS, which was viewed as the globe’s top league.

Krieger, at the time widely viewed as the best right back in the world, was the only player of the 21 on the U.S.’ 2011 World Cup roster who didn’t play in WPS at the time. She remained with Frankfurt in Germany, the 2011 World Cup host country, until the NWSL began in 2013 and U.S. players were summoned home as part of U.S. Soccer’s financial support of the league. (NWSL contracts are, in a convoluted structure highlighted by Hope Solo’s recent termination, written into U.S. Soccer’s women’s national team contracts under the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires at the end of the year.)

She missed the 2012 Olympics after tearing her ACL in qualifying seven months earlier, returning in time for the start of that inaugural NWSL season, which was a miserable one for the Spirit. Washington finished dead last, winning three and losing 14 of its 22 games and undergoing a midseason coaching change which ultimately sparked the club’s turnaround over the past three seasons.

Krieger is now 32 years old, but she feels better than ever. Her game has changed – less bombing forward, more tactically savvy – but it hasn’t notably regressed, despite falling out of favor as the starting right back for the U.S. national team. And with U.S. coach Jill Ellis stressing, at least publicly, that NWSL form would heavily factor into her decisions heading into the 2016 Olympics, Krieger saw this NWSL season as an extended audition for the starting right-back position with the U.S., which Kelley O’Hara ultimately claimed for the Olympics.

“I think it is, and it’s where she is in her maturation process,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said of Krieger. “You’re starting to see the evolution of and the development of where the league is important. In the past, it wasn’t important. It was just something to keep them sharp for world championships and for the national team. And I think it’s starting to evolve and transition into what is a more natural situation like it is everywhere else in the world.”

Years left in the tank

My future is really bright with the national team, and (Jill) made sure that she mentioned that in our conversation."

- Krieger

Moments before Krieger spoke with media on Thursday in Houston, U.S. Soccer released Ellis’ roster for the upcoming national-team training camp. It features 11 uncapped players, with a handful of big-name veterans, including Krieger, noticeably absent.

Krieger said she spoke with Ellis the week prior, a conversation in which Ellis was complimentary, Krieger said.

“Of course, I would love to be there, but this isn’t the end for me and my future is really bright with the national team, and (Jill) made sure that she mentioned that in our conversation,” she said. “That was a really good conversation, and we’ll see in the future, the next couple of camps coming up. But it’s really nice to have a rest. I need it. I think a few of us do.”

She continued: “I feel super confident. I’ve been doing well. I’m scoring goals, doing stuff, serving set pieces. Like, use me. I’m fully confident. I know how good I am; I know how good I can be. I know that I can be used with the national team. It’s just a matter of continuing to do that, continuing to control myself – and that’s the only thing I worry about: My work ethic and attitude. I know (Jill) sees that. I know our coaching staff sees that.

“The leadership qualities that I have can be implemented into our national team, because I know that right now we need that. Especially leading into these next three years, and bringing in all these younger players. You need experienced players that are going to be there, in my opinion, to help guide these younger players through and kind of implement that blue-collar attitude of how to be successful in big games. And if you don’t have that, it’s going to be hard to teach that.”

The specifics of the conversation between Krieger and Ellis remain between the two of them, but whether Ellis’ inclusion of two new fullbacks – a position the coach often references as one of need – in the latest training-camp roster is any negative indication of Krieger’s international future, the Spirit defender remains undeterred. She wants to play in another World Cup.

“Oh my God, it’s on my radar. And 2020,” Krieger said. “I would love to be a part of that group. I’m not going to stop, and I’m going to work my ass off to get back. But I feel really good right now. I feel better than ever, and I’m getting older. It’s weird; I feel really good. But everything with – all my conversations with Jill are really healthy and really positive, so I’m not worried.”

First, though, comes Sunday’s NWSL Championship against the Western New York Flash, Krieger’s chance to check ‘domestic-league title’ off her list of accomplishments. She’s the heart of this close-knit Spirit squad, and she’s cognizant of the necessity of her leadership qualities, for club and country.

“I’m just going to go out and play the way I always do and be a leader for this team,” Krieger said. “I think that there is a little bit of pressure of wanting to carry the team on my back and guide them in this successful direction, but I think we’ve naturally done that all season together. We’ve all been on the same page, we really respect each other and we work really hard for each other. There is no individual player. We always play as a team.”

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Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.