It's nearly impossible to prepare for the aura of a World Cup game, but U.S. defender Ali Krieger has come close.
It was the second leg of the 2008 UEFA Champions League final, and Krieger's FFC Frankfurt essentially was playing a home match. Nearly 28,000 fans erupted as the players took the field, and Krieger, a Dumfries, Va., native, couldn't help but smile.
"It was exciting, it was loud, it was the way a women's football match should be," she said. "You think to yourself, 'Wow - all of these people are cheering you on and are just as passionate about the game as you are.' It was unreal."
Frankfurt went on to win 3-2, capping a historic season that included championships in the women's Bundesliga, German Cup and UEFA final, also known as the treble. You would think that such an occasion would be a lifetime achievement, but professional championships pale in comparison to Krieger's dream: winning a World Cup with the U.S. national team.
"This is something you work for your whole life - you want to be a part of this team," Krieger said. "You only get this opportunity and these tournaments to play in every so often. ... People dream of having this opportunity."
The 26-year-old is slated to start at right back for the top-ranked Americans in their opening match Tuesday against North Korea, but she was barely on the national team's radar before her stint with Frankfurt. In a twist of fate, Krieger needed to develop her skills over three years in Germany to reach the World Cup - in Germany.
"The fact that she actually left the country and played in the Bundesliga says a lot about her," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "She's taken a different road compared to all the other players, and that's added an element to the team and to the atmosphere that I really like."
In the summer of 2007, shortly after graduating from Penn State, Krieger was looking for any option that would allow her to continue playing. A friend set her up with a tryout at FFC Frankfurt, and she soon signed with the club and found herself on a plane to Germany.
"I had nothing to lose so I just packed up two bags and went," she said. "I didn't think it would be as successful as it has [been] ... I just kind of went for it."
Then 23, Krieger was a fish out of water. She struggled to understand German culture and could barely speak the language, which made everything from ordering dinner to coordinating Frankfurt's defensive structure a major challenge. In other words, the culture shock hit hard.
"I sort of wanted to go home after three months because I really couldn't handle the language and how uncomfortable I felt," Krieger recalled. "That's what's so tough - you're forced into a completely different culture, completely different team. It was really tough to take all at once."
The turning point came about five months in, after Krieger had returned from celebrating Christmas in Virginia with her family. She started feeling better and grew to fit the traditional German playing style - strong and technically sound. She soon found herself in the starting 11, helping craft Frankfurt's dominant run to the top of both the German and European ranks.
Sidelined by a foot injury, Krieger missed all of the following Bundesliga season and was loaned to the Washington Freedom of the newly formed Women's Professional Soccer league. Playing less than an hour from her hometown, the loan gave Krieger a perfect environment to get back in the swing of things and return to match form, which she did in the fall of 2009.
As Krieger inched her way back into the Frankfurt lineup, her national team stock also began to rise. She emerged as a potential starter for Team USA in the upcoming World Cup and 2012 Olympics, which prompted her to participate in more matches and training sessions with the team.
The defender soon realized that she could not keep up with the constant transatlantic flights and was pressed to make a decision. In March, Krieger announced that she would leave Frankfurt and focus on making the national team. She is the only U.S. player that has had to make that sort of sacrifice.
"It was difficult leaving my second home, so to say. I wasn't ready to leave," she said. "It was a very, very tough decision, and I had a really tough time making it."
The United States squad arrived in Dresden on Thursday to begin final preparations for its opening match. But for Krieger, returning to Germany is only one of many great story lines that she may encounter as the tournament progresses. If the U.S. and Germany stick to their seeds, they will meet in the semifinals, and Krieger will face eight of her former teammates from FFC Frankfurt.
"Its going to be a bit weird - a lot of them have been my teammates along with my best friends," she said.
But the coincidences don't stop there. If the two powerhouses do collide in the semis, Krieger and her German counterparts would return to Commerz-Bank Arena - the same stadium that hosted them in the UEFA Final three years earlier.
In a way, Krieger's soccer career appears to have come full circle.
"It's just a dream come true that [of] anywhere in the world that I want to play in a World Cup, it's in the country that I've been living in for the last three years," Krieger laughed. "I think that's amazing in itself."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.