Well, you can take the girl out of Germany, but apparently, you can’t take Germany out of the girl.
When Virginia native and former Penn State star Ali Krieger debuted for the U.S. Women’s National Team in Pia Sundhage’s first game as head coach in early 2008, she was getting in on the ground floor of something big.
Unfortunately, it took her more than two years to make the journey to the top, partly because of injuries, but also because of commitments to her German club FFC Frankfurt, which limited her availability for national team camps and events.
As her contract was to be up at the end of the most recent Women’s Bundesliga season, Krieger decided she needed to commit to the U.S. full-time in order to make the World Cup Team. She chose not to re-sign and left Germany last spring after helping Frankfurt finish second in the league behind Turbine Potsdam while defeating the Berliners for the German Cup title.
It was an emotional goodbye to a team, city and country that had given Krieger a life-changing period of growth. Of course, she was soon to return, but this time with the U.S. team, and only for a month.
But oh what a month it was.
What followed is well documented now. She won the starting right back spot in the World Cup, played every minute of the tournament, was one of the USA’s best overall players, and nailed the clinching penalty kick against Brazil in the quarterfinal that earned her a place in women’s soccer lore.
She also won the hearts of the German public, not only for her ability to speak their language fluently, but also for the tattoo on her left forearm, which reads “Liebe” or love in German. Krieger says the tattoo signifies how she feels about the country in which she “grew up” as a player and a person, a country that gave her the chance to be a part of the USA’s magical World Cup run.
A mental let-down is not uncommon after a hugely emotional event in one’s life. The U.S. players experienced the highest highs and lowest lows in Germany. It’s only natural that upon returning home, after the hoopla had died down, after the fans had stopped cheering, after the cameras and flashbulbs had left, that there would be just a bit of depression.
That happened to Krieger, but it was also something deeper.
“I was really, really happy to be back home, and all that support was so overwhelming and an experience of a lifetime,” said Krieger, who returned to where she grew up in suburban Virginia aft the World Cup. “But there was something missing.”
What that was, she didn’t know. It took some soul-searching to figure it out.
“I was just sitting at home thinking,” said Krieger. “I don’t know why I felt the way I felt, but I was unsure, unhappy and at a loss about what to do with my free time.”
She came at the problem from different angles, but in the end kept coming back to the same antidote to her malaise: Frankfurt.
“I feel like the most important thing in life is how happy you are,” said Krieger. “I knew that in Frankfurt I was extremely happy. I love playing there and being a part of that team, that lifestyle and that culture. That was where I was the most comfortable.”
Of course, if she returned to Germany she would have to content with the two major issues that hindered her ability to play with the national team in 2008, 2009 and part of 2010: Her availability for U.S. WNT events and the intense travel associated with those national team commitments.
The first issue she took care of with Frankfurt, negotiating some more flexibility in her release to play with the WNT. That was basically a deal-breaker. It helped Frankfurt would be deeper at all positions this season and could more afford for her to miss matches. She plans to be available for selection for all the USA’s upcoming matches over this year and next, although she could miss some training camp time.
The second issue would cause her to come to terms with the lifestyle of an international soccer player, one that took its toll on her over the past year or so, and that was traveling thousands of miles while always having to produce on the field, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
“I wanted to get Pia’s permission to go back. That meant a lot to me,” said Krieger, who spoke with the U.S. head coach before making her decision. “It was important to get her advice and have her support. She said it was ultimately my decision and to do what made me happy, but also she gave me some questions to answer about my availability and how I was going to feel physically with the travel. I decided that while it’s tough, it’s exactly what I went through last year. I’m used to it, I’m a professional, this is my job, and I have to be okay with it.”
With the decision made and a weight lifted off her psyche, she headed back to Germany to join Frankfurt for its run at the league title that has eluded them for the past three seasons (Potsdam has won three titles in a row), its pursuit of another DFB Cup and for the start of Women’s Champions League matches. At her first training, she was greeted with big hugs and smiles from all of her teammates.
“It felt so good and I knew this was the right choice,” said Krieger. “This is a good feeling, a positive feeling, a happy feeling.”
“Playing in Germany worked for me individually,” said Krieger. “It’s been the best for my game and I am going to stick to that. You never know how much longer you can play. I’m only 27, and I wanted to play in as many amazing games as possible.”
Already a popular player for Frankfurt, Krieger found an even larger fan base when she returned this time. The U.S. military, which supported the U.S. team tremendously during its run in Germany, has formed a cheering section for Krieger at every Frankfurt home game. With numerous military bases near Frankfurt, and with the friendship struck up between Krieger and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy and his staff at the U.S. Embassy, she meets fans everywhere she goes.
They come with posters and signs, American flags and patriotic voices. Fans come to the games in U.S. jerseys, and she’s received more than her fair share of flowers.
“I was really overwhelmed and a bit shocked at first, but I think after the World Cup the Americans here feel a connection to the league,” said Krieger. “Obviously football is so huge here that you can’t help but get caught up in it, and our games give the military something to enjoy on weekends. It’s great having them out at games.”
In the end, it came down to a win-win situation for Krieger. In talking about her decision she sounds like a cross between a right back and the Dalai Lama.
“Germany helped me so much to make the U.S. team and also helped me keep my game at a high level. If my happiness and my football were at the highest level equally, why give that up?”
Answer: You don’t. You just book a ticket to Frankfurt.