Ali Krieger and the case of the missing midfielder

Ali Krieger won’t be with the Washington Spirit for the NWSL semifinal at Seattle. Does it matter?

Her absence, to attend her father’s wedding, is certainly a surprise. Her father, Ken, is a Virginia Youth Soccer Hall of Famer and the type of person you’d think would cut off his arm to be at an important soccer game. And he’s lucky that the D.C. United Academy team he coaches has the week off.

Women’s soccer fans love a good debate. Sometimes. Other times, they’re furious that anyone would even dare to question the noble intent of their favorite players. Or any players. So we can imagine the screaming in the wake of this news. The rough consensus on my Twitter timeline: “Leave Krieger alone! Blame the NWSL for not scheduling things farther in advance!” (I’m not sure what to make of the latter point — if they set the date a year ago, not realizing the NWSL would run into September, then it makes sense. But if they were scheduling it — or hadn’t even made a lot of nonrefundable deposits — over the winter, you’d think they might have figured a playoff game was a possibility.)

The rough consensus at The Equalizer is a little harsher.

(I have to give credit here to Jeff Kassouf for this marvelous and completely apt turn of phrase: “The deja vu seemed so ludicrous that Dure asked Parsons if he was joking.”)

So that’s the off-field debate. What about on the field? Perhaps this is an even more controversial point, which may explain why I’m phrasing it with so many qualifiers that a good editor would lop out of the story: The Spirit might not really miss Ali Krieger this weekend.

Make no mistake — you can’t talk about the best right backs in the world without talking about Krieger. She might be No. 1. She didn’t make FIFA’s Who-Voted-On-This-Stuff Team from the World Cup, but neither did Becky Sauerbrunn, which should be enough to send all of those voters to a therapist or an optometrist. Krieger was surely squeezed out because voters didn’t feel comfortable naming all four defenders from one team, no matter how well deserved. So forget the voting and look at the results — Krieger got into the attack on occasion (more effectively when Jill Ellis suddenly ditched the “whack it to Wambach” tactics), and every player on that line had to be in world-class form to stifle Germany as effectively as they did.

But Krieger hasn’t been playing right back for the Spirit. She has been playing defensive midfielder. And she might not be the best defensive midfielder on her own team.

It’s not quite the typical 4-5-1 or 4-1-2-3 or whatever you call it on Mark Parsons’ team. He has Crystal Dunn, Francisca Ordega and Diana Matheson at forward and on the wings, somewhat interchangeably. The three midfielders behind them also have overlapping roles.

Krieger has been in that mix. And though the view from the pressbox doesn’t always tell you everything, she hasn’t seemed as comfortable going forward as Christine “I WILL SHOOT FROM 30 YARDS AND TERRIFY THE KEEPER” Nairn or whichever midfielder Parsons selects from Joanna Lohman and Angela Salem.

Parsons has patiently told the assembled Washington-area media that Krieger has contributed in ways we really haven’t noticed — specifically, marking another player out of the game. Maybe Carli Lloyd. Maybe Kim Little. (Repetition alert: This point was also in my SoccerWire preview, which was obviously written before the Krieger news broke in the conference call. That’ll teach me to wait until the conference call.)

She’s not even playing a traditional No. 6. It’s as if Parsons is channeling Jim Valvano and turned Krieger into the “one” in a box-and-one.

That’s an important role, of course. But can the Spirit get some of that defensive tenacity, maybe by committee?

We the media botched the conference call yesterday in one important sense — we forgot to inquire into the health and form of one Tori Huster. The versatile player was a cornerstone in whatever the Spirit did right in its first two seasons. But she hasn’t been at full health or full form this year, perhaps feeling the effects of spending her offseasons playing in Australia or just dealing with nagging injuries here and there.

Maybe Parsons, who joked that he wished I hadn’t asked the “surprise news” question and forced him (not really) to reveal the Krieger news, is holding Huster in reserve and is sitting somewhere with a relieved smile that none of us thought to ask?

Or maybe Huster isn’t ready to go, and he’ll just put Lohman and Salem on the field together. Less surprising, but possibly effective as well.

If you’ve watched Krieger off the ball at Spirit games recently, you’ve noticed that she often seems a little less than fully engaged. WoSo fans might debate whether that’s a lack of motivation or just a sign that she’s worn down from the World Cup summer. That only matters if you’re dead set on putting Krieger on trial, and really, what’s the point of that?

The only practical concern here is that Krieger’s absence shouldn’t be a crushing blow for the Spirit. They have other defensive midfielders, maybe not as capable at 1v1 defense as Krieger but perhaps more comfortable giving some depth to the Spirit attack. They have other leaders — the quiet but inspirational Diana Matheson, the much louder and also inspirational Ashlyn Harris.

And if Seattle mastermind Laura Harvey thought she had the Spirit figured out last week, now she has to wonder what her good friend has in store now.

Said it last week — I’d pay to watch Harvey and Parsons play chess. This semifinal ought to be interesting.

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