By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- Not so very long ago, Ali Krieger could have been sitting among the campers listening to her speak about her life as a professional soccer player during an appearance on Tuesday at the Sacred Heart Academy soccer camp.
The 28-year-old U.S. women's national team player and current member of the Washington Spirit of the newly-formed National Women's Soccer League recalled her own days as a camper and aspiring player growing up in northern Virginia. She met Mia Hamm, a real thrill. She met Michelle Akers, another icon. She met another role model in U.S. National team member Kristine Lilly -- and later was her teammate.
"I was able to play alongside her, so that was surreal for me as well," Krieger said of Lilly. "She was one of my role models growing up."
Providing a potential role model is what brought Krieger to Winchester on Tuesday, a rare off-day from training with the Spirit and just two days after a road game against FC Kansas City and three days before another road trip to take on the Western New York Flash on Friday. Krieger regularly squeezes in appearances like Tuesday's visit to sign autographs and answer questions, all in the hope of inspiring the next generation of players just as she was once inspired herself.
"I tend to get out in the D.C. area and show my face, give back a little bit, Krieger said. "I'm trying to inspire these kids to want to play soccer and want to get better. I try and show my passion for the game, and hopefully it rubs off on them.
"I know when I was younger, I looked up to my role models and certain professional players. I think that's very important for these kids, to have role models and people that inspire them."
An Alexandria native, Krieger spent her formative years playing soccer under the coaching of her father, Ken, before embarking on a successful collegiate career at Penn State. From there, she made her professional debut with the Washington Freedom and also spent years playing overseas for FC Frankfurt. A regular on the U.S. women's national team since 2009, Krieger was one of the heroes of the U.S. squad's 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup runner-up performance. Against Brazil in the quarterfinals, Krieger tallied the golden goal in a penalty-kick victory to advance the U.S.
Krieger appeared to be a lock for the U.S. Olympic squad headed into the 2012 London Games, but a devastating knee injury sidelined her. Despite a determined effort to rehabilitate her injury in time for the Olympics, Krieger was bypassed when the team was selected before she was fully healthy.
In February, Krieger made a successful return to the U.S. women's national team in a 4-1 win over Scotland. Fully healthy now, she's hoping this latest try at a professional women's soccer league in the U.S. works out. Having a professional league for women is crucial to the sport's future in this country, Krieger said.
"I think it's very important," Krieger said. "These kids, it gives them something to aspire to do and it gives them hope."
One day, Krieger hopes the popularity of women's soccer in the U.S. can rival the following she saw overseas in Germany and across Europe. She's encouraged by the steady growth of men's professional soccer.
"In this country it's obviously gotten more popular," Krieger said. "Soccer's gotten more fans now I think because of the World Cup and because of the Olympics, and because we've done so well. And now that U.S. Soccer is funding this league, I think it goes to show how important it is to have a league and have players play in this league and continue to grow the game.
"You can see with MLS, throughout the 15 years or so, has even gotten bigger. We're having about 10,000 to 12,000 fans come to our matches. In Portland we had 12,000 or 13,000 fans come, and in D.C. we consistently have about 5,000 fans come to every game. So it's gotten more popular.
"It's one of the best sports in the world, and it's enjoyable to watch. I think as long as that continues, then fans will follow for sure."