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Ali Krieger’s soccer journey fittingly ends in NWSL Championship

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As Gotham FC prepares to play in their first NWSL championship game, they represent not only a turnaround from a last-place finish in 2022 but also from a struggle that’s spanned nearly a decade. Once Sky Blue FC, a club known for negative headlines more than positive ones, Gotham of 2023 is more of a phoenix rising from the ashes than a Cinderella story.

The club’s journey toward the top of the league has had its fair share of twists and turns, which makes it the only fitting ending for captain Ali Krieger, who is set to retire after this season alongside OL Reign star and championship opponent Megan Rapinoe.

Krieger has been playing professional soccer since before the NWSL’s inception, traveling across the globe in pursuit of opportunities while never losing sight of home. In many ways, she was a trendsetter, following a path that resembles more what a modern women’s professional soccer player might take before the world was quite ready for that reality.

During her college career at Penn State, she spent time training and playing with the W-league version of her home team, the Washington Freedom. After graduation, she made the leap to Europe and played for FC Frankfurt for a number of years, even after WPS was established.

In those early years of the fledgling business of women’s soccer, Krieger was known to be playing either an ocean away or right at home. She won the original UEFA Champions League (known at the time as the UEFA Women’s Cup) with Frankfurt, before returning to play with the Freedom in WPS. Kreiger played almost year-round at the time, going back to Europe at the end of the WPS season (and eventually the end of the league itself) to continue to compete.

So when the NWSL launched in 2013, it was only natural that Krieger became one of the inaugural U.S. women’s national team allocated players for the team in her home city: the Washington Spirit. Krieger became synonymous with the early era of the Spirit, playing a pivotal role that led to consistent time with the USWNT defense and eventually two World Cup wins.

At the league level, Krieger’s highest-profile moment with the Spirit came in defeat. In 2016, Washington reached the NWSL Championship for the first time after a semifinal win over the Chicago Red Stars. In the final, the Spirit were seconds away from the club’s first title before a miracle equalizer from Lynn Williams, Krieger’s current club teammate, sent the game to penalties. Krieger, known for her poise on the ball, missed her penalty kick and the Western New York Flash claimed the trophy.

Krieger spent the early years of her pro career bouncing between Washington and foreign clubs, including the Spirit. (Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Despite a history of NWSL heartbreak, it’s a testament to Krieger’s longevity and her ability to connect with those around her that she’s played with fellow titans of the game throughout her career. She was a part of the famed 2013 Tyresö FF roster in Sweden that included Christen Press, Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen and Ashlyn Harris. The 2016 Spirit team that fell just short of a title featured both Gotham’s semifinal opponent, Crystal Dunn, and their eventual goal-scoring hero, Katie Stengel.

Krieger had an outsized impression on Dunn in particular, even before the two became club teammates.

“In my first (USWNT) camp, we had to run the beep test,” Dunn told Just Women’s Sports in 2021. “And I was like, ‘Great, I’m about to get cut before I even kick a soccer ball.’ And (Krieger) ran the beep test right next to me and was cheering me on, encouraging me to do one more sprint, make it to one more round.

“I was like, ‘You don’t even know me, and you’re literally so sweet and so nice.’”

Krieger’s steady performances as an outside back made her a valuable asset when the NWSL expanded to Orlando in 2016 and she moved into a new unknown with the Pride. Once again, she found herself surrounded by legendary talent like Harris, Alex Morgan, Marta, Steph Catley and Alanna Kennedy. For a time, the top-heavy roster-building strategy worked, with the team making it to the NWSL playoffs in 2017 before falling to eventual champions Portland Thorns.

But after the promise of those early years, the Orlando project never really got off the ground. The Pride finished seventh in 2018 and ninth out of nine teams in 2019. Their struggles nearly cost Krieger a roster spot for the 2019 World Cup. Former USWNT manager Jill Ellis kept her at arm’s length for two years before bringing her back into the team right before the World Cup roster was named. After the team’s iconic win at the tournament, Krieger’s time with the U.S. faded, and she earned her final national team cap in early 2021.

After 2020, Krieger’s next evolution began. She started spending more time as a center-back, which came with growing pains but also likely elongated the 39-year-old’s career. The position change allowed her to use her experience in reading the game over getting into a footrace with speedy, young attackers.

Krieger has also been very open about using the time after her national team career to start a family, a decision that ultimately led her to Gotham in 2022. With the Spirit, Krieger faced what she described as homophobia from Washington team leadership. In Orlando, she ultimately felt that Florida state leadership wasn’t creating an environment that was safe for her two adopted children. So, her family opted to make one final journey.

Her ties aren’t as strong to the New Jersey area, but Krieger immediately ingratiated herself with a group that is now determined to win her a long sought-after NWSL Championship. Her bend-but-don’t-break style of defense has become the ethos the entire team has embodied under first-year coach Juan Carlos Amorós. Gotham’s commitment to doing whatever it takes to keep the ball out of the back of their own net is hard-earned, after the club conceded the most goals in the league in 2022.

Krieger will be playing for her first NWSL Championship with Gotham on Saturday. (Ira L. Black/Getty Images)

With the wisdom of a player used to many different locker room environments, in 2023 Krieger has not missed a beat with new center-back partner Maitane López, nor with two young outside-backs in rookie Jenna Nighswonger and 21-year-old Bruninha. In the past, Krieger’s sense of calm hasn’t always been enough to carry a defense, but the 2023 Gotham backline is locked in with support in front of them. All together, it’s led to some of the best performances in Krieger’s career.

Saturday’s championship game in San Diego will be the last stop on Krieger’s world soccer tour. It seems fitting that she will have the opportunity to dictate her goodbye, as one of the game’s true warriors finally walks into the sunset.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.