For the past four years, the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have remained seeded in the back of Ali Krieger’s mind.
As the United States claimed a third consecutive gold medal in London in 2012, the national team’s injured right back found herself watching from the Wembley Stadium stands.
While Krieger returned from the torn ACL and MCL in her right knee to reach the pinnacle of her sport, starting every match as the U.S. claimed the Women’s World Cup last summer, the title of Olympian remains missing from her resume.
“I haven’t accomplished everything I want to accomplish,” Krieger said. “This is something I do want to check off my list. I was so jealous of the girls when they won the gold in 2012.”
For all of the time Krieger has had to think about the Olympics, she knows her focus can’t go to Rio de Janeiro just yet. After splitting the past month between national team matches and the NWSL preseason, the 31-year-old has shifted her concentration to the Washington Spirit’s opener against the Boston Breakers on Saturday at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds.
“It’s obviously an adjustment, being away with the national team and having to come back” to the Spirit, Krieger said. “It’s hard to keep that connection because I’m so focused there, and then coming back and being focused here. That’s why I hate to think about the Olympics right now, because we have to be here, we have to be present.”
Krieger has returned for her fourth season with a Washington team coming off back-to-back trips to the NWSL semifinals. Having seen minutes at center back and central midfield over the past year, Krieger is poised to mostly play her preferred right back role this season.
Although she won’t be a part of Washington’s spine from a positional standpoint, Krieger remains an emotional anchor in the Spirit locker room.
“Kriegs is one of a kind,” said Washington and U.S. forward Crystal Dunn, the league’s MVP last season. “I feel like she always knows exactly what to say. It’s really hard being a leader because you want to respect everybody and reach out to everybody in the same way, but she goes above and beyond and actually takes the time to go up to people individually.”
While Jim Gabarra has taken over for Mark Parsons as coach and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was plucked by the expansion Orlando Pride, the Spirit bring back a core that also includes Dunn, Canadian playmaker Diana Matheson and midfield stalwart Christine Nairn.
Krieger, who played under Gabarra for the now-defunct Washington Freedom, has taken it upon herself to provide a link between the players and their new coach. After leaning on the likes of Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly and Christie Rampone as a young player advancing through the national team system, Krieger has embraced her own evolution into a veteran leader.
“My role is just to be a liaison between the coaching staff and the players,” Krieger said. “I try and be super vocal on the field because that’s what we need, and that’s what I want to do.”
Added Dunn: “She is able to go through great experiences and just be humble. She’s just trying to get better every day, and I think I could take a page out of her book.”
Playing in the Olympics isn’t the only career milestone Krieger has set her sights on in 2016, with the Alexandria native also targeting her first NWSL title and the league’s Defender of the Year honor.
But she understands the national team and league campaign go hand in hand. With the Olympics four months away, U.S. coach Jill Ellis has emphasized that form in the NWSL will be a significant factor as she selects the 18-player squad for Rio de Janeiro.
When it comes to the Olympics, Krieger of all people knows she can’t take anything for granted.
“These are games and this is serious,” Krieger said. “At one point, hopefully in the future, it’ll be club over country and you really have to play well [in the league] to get called in for the national team. No matter who you are and how many caps you have, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to make it because you won a World Cup — you have to perform really well.”