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Global Jan 15, 2008

Ali Krieger earned her way to the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team

Newest Women’s National team member and former Prince William youth player Ali Krieger considers herself very lucky. Not that luck is the reason she has been chosen for her first full women’s national team roster, but lucky that she had such a great experience as a youth player for the Prince William Soccer Incorporated Sparklers.

“I was always happy on that team,” Ali repeated several times during our phone conversation Tuesday night as she prepared to leave for China to prepare for her first full national team competition. “I was so, so lucky to have had such a great experience and to have the team stick together so well for so long.”

Soccer has always been Ali’s first choice of sport. She played volleyball in high school, basketball in junior high, and even did a little cheerleading. Her father, former Sparklers coach Ken Krieger, said, “We did everything, let her try everything, but soccer was always number one.”

It was not unusual in the 1990s for a youth team coach like Ken Kreiger to also be a parent of one of the players. That was before the youth soccer landscape became dominated by hired professional coaches and “training companies.” But what WAS unusual was that by the time his daughter – a future national teamer, professional player in Germany, and Penn State All-American – was born, the elder Krieger had played and already coached more soccer at a high level than most parent coaches.

When Ali was seven, PWSI officials asked Ken to head up their next girls “travel” team. With his eye for talent, and a robust recreational program already under way, it was an easy task to find the players he wanted to invite to join.

With the newly minted team assembled, Coach Kreiger set the tone for the future with parents, stating, “Let me do my job.”  As an experienced coach and player, as well as career educator, he was in a position to be very blunt.

“If I needed my teeth fixed or my taxes done, and one of the parents was a dentist or accountant, then I’d go to them,” explained Krieger. “But I am a teacher and a soccer coach, so I asked them to trust me and let me do my job in helping their daughters become the best players they could.”

He wanted to build the team through player development, rather than taking the path of constant recruiting and restructuring followed by many other teams. His mission was simple: “To maximize the potential of every player.” By and large, the parents agreed and a dynasty was born.

Retaining eight original players the whole way through U19, the Prince William Sparklers won six out of eight possible Virginia Youth Soccer Association State Cup championships, advanced to the Region I tournament six times, winning the Region once at U16. That win sent them to Florida for the National Championships, where they lost on triple overtime on a last-minute goal in the finals, the only goal they conceded at Nationals. Victories in other tournaments led to the reward of playing in RFK Stadium and the biggest prize of all, an invitation to train with Chelsea FC in London for two weeks.

It is hard for Ali to admit that she herself has been a big reason for the success of every team she’s played with, though it most certainly was a major factor. When describing her youth experiences, she doesn’t say “we won this” or “I did that.” All she talks about is how lucky she was to have had such a great soccer experience and how the whole purpose was to have fun.

Her advice to today’s young players is to “have fun playing soccer for your own reasons. Set goals, and never give up. But if you don’t enjoy, then don’t do it.”

It’s a mantra that has been the key to her success.

She also credits her family for “always being there to support me. Not just my dad as a coach, but also my mom and my brother on the sidelines as much as possible, just supporting me. They always let me make my own decisions about soccer.”

That enabled Kreiger to make the hard choice to quit ODP during her U15 year, after five years with the program. “It just wasn’t as fun as playing for my club team, and the quality wasn’t any better because [the Sparklers] were so good.”

The time spent and the expense to her family just didn’t seem worth it. “ODP is a great opportunity for a lot of players to find their way to the national team, but I found another way,” Krieger said diplomatically.

Free to focus on her club soccer, the big colleges came calling. She chose Penn State, where she was a four-year starter and won four straight Big Ten championships. Personal accolades piled up, too: She was a two-time All-American, a first team NSCAA All-American, defensive co-player of the year, and a semifinalist for the M.A.C. Hermann trophy, among other accomplishments.

In her junior year, she led the team to the NCAA tournament, where they were widely thought to have their best chance at winning a first national championship. However, on the eve of the first round, Ali broke her leg in training and missed her team\’s run to a semifinal PK shootout, which they lost to eventual winner Portland.

“’Kreiger’ means ‘warrior’ in German, and that’s what Ali is,” said her father. “She never quits. We used to call her the furnace, or engine. She just keeps coming at you and never gives up.”

Ali doesn’t describe it quite that way. But she does use the setback at Penn State as an example of how “things can derail your plans, but you can never give up on your dreams if you have any hope of obtaining them.”

As much as she’s accomplished so far in her soccer career, she still has big dreams. She just started a new life in Germany playing for FFC Frankfurt of the Women’s Bundesliga, quite possibly one of the best women’s teams in the world. She chose Frankfurt despite offers from Chelsea, because she wanted to play with the best players and Frankfurt is the top team in a country that has won the last two World Cups.

Playing alongside big names like Brigit Prinz and Steffi Jones, Krieger says that the process of acquainting herself with a new team in Germany has helped her with adjustment to the full Women’s National Team.

Ali\’s invitation to attend training camp came by email from the US Soccer Federation, saying that Head Coach Pia Sundhage would like to invite her to attend training camp in preparation for the team’s first official competition since the World Cup. Her acceptance was instant and now she begins another new chapter in her life.

Krieger is indeed a warrior, one who was lucky enough to have known from a very early age what she really wanted, and lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to achieve her dreams. The rest is all hard work, but it’s hard work that just happens to be a lot of fun.

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