Duke star Michelle Cooper turns pro: Will she go to the NWSL?
Cooper could jump at an opportunity abroad instead of entering the NWSL Draft.
Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris are still up for a challenge, even after eight years in the NWSL and two FIFA World Cup titles.
Harris and Krieger’s shared drive has led the couple on their latest adventure, up the coast to NJ/NY Gotham FC for the 2022 season. After playing with the Orlando Pride since 2016, the two were traded to Gotham in early December.
Both Harris, 36, and Krieger, 37, acknowledge how hard it was to leave Orlando after building roots there for six years, but they’re energized by the prospect of a fresh start with Gotham FC.
“I feel like we are going to get a certain excitement that I don’t think we’ve had for a while playing,” Krieger tells Just Women’s Sports.
The Pride finished eighth in the NWSL standings last season, above only expansion clubs Racing Louisville and Kansas City in points with a 7-7-10 record. The team also weathered a mid-season coaching shakeup after Marc Skinner left Orlando to coach Manchester United and was replaced by Becky Burleigh, who departed at the end of the season.
After four losing seasons and just one trip to the NWSL playoffs during their Pride tenure, Harris says she and Krieger needed to make a tough decision for their mental health and happiness.
“I don’t think it was easy to walk away from Orlando, but if you’re not enjoying what you do, you have to make a change even if it’s a little bit hard and drastic,” Harris says. “We were just becoming too resentful, and I think that’s when you know we made the right decision.”
Off the pitch, Krieger and Harris weren’t content to compromise either, looking for a more favorable environment in which to raise their daughter, Sloane.
“I’d be lying if I said if Ali and I don’t think big picture with Sloane,” Harris says. “It’s really hard living in Florida as a gay couple with a Black child who has a really difficult governor (Governor Ron DeSantis) who isn’t progressive and isn’t accepting of our community and every day it’s something new and something harmful.”
Striving to put their child in the “best possible position,” Harris says that New York and New Jersey’s reputation as a “progressive place to live” factored into their move to Gotham.
This isn’t Harris or Krieger’s first trade, and both have seen how teams can wield their power over players during their professional soccer careers. Harris recalls teams making her empty promises to stick around and hearing their dead-end assurances about investing in the women’s game.
This time, Harris and Krieger feel that things different. Gotham’s owners invited the players to dinner after the trade, and Harris and Krieger both left the meeting optimistic about the club’s future.
“They are in the process of building something special, and in doing so, it’s funding, investment, it’s making your players feel wanted, needed, special, all the things that they deserve,” Harris says.
Krieger adds that they both “felt super supported and valued and appreciated right from the get-go.”
Harris, now a seasoned veteran, says she needs to see “actionable steps” from a team, which means hiring the best of the best. To her, head coach Scott Parkinson, assistant coach Beverly “Bev” Goebel Yanez and general manager Yael Averbuch West fit the bill.
Gotham overhauled their front office and coaching staff last season. After GM Alyse LaHue was fired in July, Averbuch West filled the interim role and was permanently installed as GM in December. Parkinson, a former assistant with the Chicago Red Stars, was named head coach halfway through the 2021 season after Freya Coombe left to take the helm at Angel City FC.
“They get where they are at, but they also get where they need to be, and we are just trying to play a small role in that,” Harris says.
Krieger and Harris are joining a stacked roster that includes MVP nominee Midge Purce, Defender of the Year Caprice Dydasco, second-leading goal scorer Ifeoma Onumonu, among other stars. After Gotham also added U.S. women’s national team midfielder Kristie Mewis in a trade following the expansion draft last week, it would appear the club is in “win-now” mode.
Krieger and Harris are not backing down from the pressure.
“We’re not showing up anywhere to just be average. We want to win games,” says Harris, adding that she is careful not to fixate on the future in a league where every match counts. “We need to make sure we are nailing our short-term goals and that’s having a really good preseason, having a really good preseason tournament.”
Still hungry for success, Harris lights up when talking about her determined mindset, explaining that she approaches almost everything in her life with the same intensity she brings to the pitch.
“I value showing up and giving everything for the people around me, and that’s just who I am,” she says. “I don’t like to sit in complacency. I like to sit in pressure pockets where I am pushed to learn, and I think that’s why I have always loved the position because I am constantly in pressure situations.”
The award-winning goalkeeper says she thrives in uncomfortable situations, knowing those are the times when she will learn and grow the most.
Krieger can relate as a defender, especially coming from a Pride team that gave up the third-most goals in the league in 2021. She relishes the opportunity to join Gotham’s backline, which finished the season second in goals conceded per match and fifth in shutouts.
“I just want to be around players that value defending just as much as me and I know this is a place where that exists,” says Krieger, who started all 23 of her appearances with the Pride last season, notching two assists.
Harris did her part to keep the Pride in games in 2021, surpassing the NWSL career saves record with 469 stops and going on an unprecedented penalty kick-saving streak.
It’s clear that Harris and Krieger will make an impact on the pitch, but the couple also provides value to the club off the field. When announcing the trade, Averbuch West said in a statement, “I know they’ll have a tremendous impact on the field and in the locker room while also helping us cement our presence in this market.”
Their popularity among fans is something Krieger and Harris embrace, especially in a market like New York and New Jersey, where sports, culture, politics and media often converge.
“We want this game to grow in a positive, healthy direction where one day women in our sport can retire at 35 and live out the rest of their life and not have to work again,” Krieger says.
“They (the fans) feel like they are in our lives, they feel like they are connected with us, that we are friends, and I really enjoy that because that keeps bringing them back, that keeps them buying season tickets.”
Harris and Krieger have also not shied away from speaking candidly about social issues, using their platforms to bring attention to matters that are important to them.
“We are activists through and through, and I think that will never change,” Harris says. “For us, we are always going to give everything to our community and for the things we stand for and believe in.”
While Krieger says the couple’s outsized public-facing role can be overwhelming, it’s worth it to her when she sees an NWSL stadium packed with fans. With the growth of the league, Harris sees an opportunity to engage supporters in a way that matches the enthusiasm fans have for the USWNT.
The synergy between the club and its new stars is perhaps best epitomized by Gotham FC’s pre-match runway, a ritual Harris is eager to participate in as one of the most fashionable athletes in sports. While she doesn’t have her looks planned out just yet, Harris can guarantee that fans won’t be disappointed.
“I am going to bring the heat,” she says, “so just get ready.”
Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.
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