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.

On concussions, Krieger, Wambach, etc.

The soccer community, much to its credit, is taking concussions seriously. Even those of us who are at the low rungs of the coaching ladder have been required to watch videos so frightening that the natural response might be to sit a player for life after he or she first heads the ball. We have high-profile ex-players like Taylor Twellman and Alecko Eskandarian whose careers were cruelly cut short but have stepped forward to talk about concussion safety for the betterment of the next generation of players.

So when Abby Wambach tumbled to the ground at the Maryland SoccerPlex early this season and no one took immediate action, astute observers like Stefan Fatsis (who was there and had a better view than I did) took note. Fatsis questioned the lack of response, followed up after a week of conflicting information, then covered U.S. Soccer’s comments concluding Wambach’s injury was mishandled on the field but then correctly handled afterwards.

Now another national team player, Ali Krieger, has taken a hit on the field. The immediate reaction July 14 in Seattle was drastically different — Krieger sat down right away. The next time I saw the Spirit practice, Krieger wasn’t there. Nor did she play in the Spirit’s games July 20 or July 27. She played 21 minutes as a substitute July 31 against Western New York.

So far, so good. But when Krieger was a late scratch from the August 3 game at Sky Blue, the questions started.

There’s no harm in asking questions. Fatsis was right to question the way the Wambach concussion was handled. The harm comes in assuming answers when the information is incomplete. If you’re not a doctor, don’t play one on Twitter.

What we DO know is that Krieger was taken out immediately and sat out the next two games. That’s plenty of time to keep running tests and then move her back into gradual activity when her symptoms cleared.

Some people view her substitute appearance with suspicion. They shouldn’t. When an elite soccer player takes several days off from training, you can’t expect her to ramp up to 90 minutes in a few days. Whether it’s a concussion, an ankle injury or a trip to Aruba, time off from training is going to limit someone’s ability to play a full game right away. (Note that a couple of the late signees to the NWSL — Sky Blue’s Ashley Nick and Washington’s Marisa Abegg — have been playing this summer, so they were fit and ready to go. Portland’s Tina Ellertson is a fantastic player, but she hasn’t been playing recently, so the Thorns didn’t sign her and toss her out in the starting lineup right away.)

What happened next is indeed curious. Krieger missed the next game. I can’t really explain why. But neither can you. It takes a strange sort of conspiracy theorist to come up with a reason why the Spirit, already mathematically eliminated, felt it vitally important to play Krieger for 21 minutes in one game if she hadn’t been medically cleared to play.

Let’s ask this question: Can concussion symptoms go away and then come back? Yes. Ask Marc Savard.

Now bear in mind — we don’t know the details of what’s going on with Krieger right now. Maybe she felt slightly off. Maybe she has full-blown post-concussion syndrome. (Don’t panic — from what I’m hearing, this is unlikely. Just stating it as within the realm of possibility.) We don’t know.

Perhaps teams and the NWSL in general should be more forthcoming with injury information. But until that happens, be very careful about filling the gaps with stuff we don’t know.

The evidence doesn’t suggest Krieger was recklessly rushed back onto the field. If anyone has any evidence to the contrary, by all means, share it.

NWSL stars: Home sweet home

Courtesy of Boston Breakers
Heather O’Reilly will spend less time in traffic than you will, unless you telecommute. (Photo courtesy of Boston Breakers)

A common theme running through the NWSL conference calls that stacked up Monday afternoon: Players are happy to be home.

Not just in the sense that they could easily be playing overseas or spending a lot of time in U.S. residency camp if no domestic league existed. For the national team players who chatted Monday, they’re thrilled to be playing close to their families.

But the three stories are a little different …

In the greater Washington-ish area, Northern Virginia’s Ali Krieger is thrilled to be playing close to home after spending a few years in Germany. (She did come back to the WPS Washington Freedom for a brief loan spell.) Even better, she’s healthy again, proclaiming herself at 100% after tearing the ACL and MCL in her right knee early last year.

In Boston, Heather O’Reilly admits she’ll miss New Jersey, where she grew up and later played for Sky Blue, but she enjoyed training with and playing a couple of games for the Breakers in her new hometown last summer. Her husband is a Harvard man, and she says the practice facility is almost literally across the street from her home.

In Rochester and Buffalo, Abby Wambach is going home, but it wasn’t a no-brainer. She confirmed that she bought a house in Portland and is in mid-remodel. She also admits the attention in Rochester can be overwhelming, and that partially explains why she’ll live in Buffalo.

“Fans will be fans. They’ll interrupt you in the middle of dinner. For the most part, it’s so sweet. I’m an extrovert. But … the privacy factor was a concern. The buffer between Rochester and Buffalo will help.”

But she’s happy to see her extended family, saying she wants to see nieces and other relatives through the season.

So can the Flash crash at her Portland place when they visit the Thorns?

In any case, all three players are happier than Megan Rapinoe, who isn’t unduly upset about her allocation but tells Grant Wahl she’s a little surprised to be in Seattle instead of Portland. (You’d think Portland and Seattle would simply swap Rapinoe for Morgan, which would be a more equitable distribution of forwards. And the talk last summer was that Morgan had some Seattle ties, but I’m not up on such things.)

Other bits of news from the Monday calls:

– The Washington Spirit haven’t worked out details on when and how they’ll get goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris from German club Duisburg, but they don’t seem concerned that she’ll miss much time.

– Wambach says friends from other national teams have asked her for contact info for coaches and personnel people through NWSL. She joked that she’s only putting them in touch with her coach with the Flash, Aaran Lines.

– Why did every USWNT Olympic player, including those thought to be retiring (looking at you, Heather Mitts) or perhaps indifferent, put their names on the allocation list? Why go through the grind of a league, facing the possibility of a new U.S. coach cleaning house or accumulated wear and tear proving too much to overcome, rather than go out on top? Here’s a great answer from Wambach:

“The minute you win something, it inspires you to want to do it again because all your hard work has paid off.”

On that note, the U.S. national team is in camp Feb. 2. The new cycle begins …