The Ali Krieger Conundrum


Jill Ellis does not do pomp and circumstance.

She is the type of coach that would likely never do another pregame ceremony celebrating a player reaching a cap milestone if given a choice on the matter. That might be due, in part, to her preference to rotate players out of the pool before they hit a hundred caps begin with.

We’ve consistently seen that Ellis’ focus is pointed elsewhere while the fans, media, players, and US Soccer itself revels in the celebration of certain milestones. Hope Solo getting 100 shutouts, HAO’s last game, Lori Chalupny finally getting her 100th cap after 14 years … these are all moments Ellis has seemed to shrug off as meaningless.

And yet, milestones have significance to people, to communities. Knowing that at predetermined points we will take a pause from the usual coming and going of players to call attention to the achievements of one celebrated member gives meaning to the game, to the fans, to the player. So few individuals reach, say, a hundred caps with their national team that when it happens, it’s appropriate to take a moment and acknowledge that he or she has done something extraordinary. The very reason the US and the fans make such a big deal out of joining the Century Club, as it’s called, is because only the best can manage it.  They’ve earned the celebration before the game, the captain’s armband, the special kit and the plaque, the photos with their friends and family before the gathered crowd.

This achievement, and this ceremony, it has significance. A significance far beyond the simple three-digit number on the stat sheet. 

As you might imagine when you mix a coach that does not care about pageantry with a celebration that uses pageantry to mark the significance of a tradition nearly as old as the national team itself, things go wrong.

And in the case of Ali Krieger’s journey to 100 caps, things have gone dreadfully wrong.

It’s no secret that Ellis doesn’t value Krieger as a defender. She’s made it clear that she has no use for a defender who will not play the hyper-attacking style that she wants all of her outside backs to play. (And in truth, what Ellis really wants is 10 field players to adopt that style of hyper-attack.) Krieger’s focus on defense has always meant that she has a harder time abandoning her defensive responsibilities and playing in a way that forces the centerbacks to absorb missed defensive opportunities as she plays up for the attack. Because of this, Ellis has repeatedly overlooked Krieger, either leaving her on the bench or not calling her up at all in favor of players like Kelley O’Hara, Casey Short, or Taylor Smith. All three are players who have shown a willingness to play the style that Ellis demands, and with the kind of aggressiveness she prefers. She even seems to be toying with converting Sofia Hurerta to an outside back role, though this sort of maneuver isn’t unique to Ellis. Tom Sermanni tried the same with Kristie Mewis in 2013. 

Time and time again Ellis has either kept Krieger off the roster or she has kept her on the bench. Since the 2015 victory tour, the coach has made it clear that Krieger no longer fits into her long-term plans. With most other players, everyone would have taken the hint and while we all would have been disappointed, we would have moved on.

But Ali Krieger is not most other players.

The problem with ditching a player who had a year like Ali Krieger had only two years ago in 2015, who is a fan favorite, who was denied the 2012 Olympics because of a sloppy tackle from a player on a team that the US went on to beat by a margin of two touchdowns, to borrow a term from American football, is that it does not make sense on the surface to those who care about cap totals.

For those who take nothing more than Krieger’s history on the NT and her form as a player into account, the last 18 months do not make sense. Things made even less sense when Ellis went from relying on her to cover up for other players’ mistakes to rotating her out of the lineup to sitting her on the bench for multiple games in a row to not calling her up even at the same time that her club performance has mostly been very good.

The only way the Krieger situation makes sense is in the context of Ellis replacing a player who she feels is being insubordinate. Krieger will not abandon her defensive responsibilities to attack as often and as aggressively as Jill Ellis demands because she understands that defense matters and her spending 50% of her minutes on the pitch within 20 yards of the opposite goal is not a sound defensive strategy.

Unfortunately, when the coach is telling you to play a certain way and they find you not sufficiently willing to play that way, then the coach is likely going to reduce your minutes, or in the case of Krieger stop calling you up altogether. No matter how foolhardy the game plan is, at the end of the day the show is Ellis’ to run as she sees fit. You can disagree with her game plan but as long as US Soccer is keeping her on she is well within her rights to call up players she sees fitting the game plan she has and leaving off players she feels can not or will not play to that game plan. As much as any sane person may look at Krieger’s game and understand that what she’s doing will save the US from giving up goals and will make the players around her better, she is not following the game plan faithfully enough for Ellis. So Ellis’ solution going forward is to continue passing over Ali Krieger, no matter what. 

For Jill Ellis, Krieger is no longer an option.

Remember the pomp and circumstance thing we talked about at the beginning of this and how ceremony matters?

The problem in all of this is Ellis decided she was done with Krieger while Krieger is sitting on 98 caps, just two away from the ceremony that would give closure to the player and her fans. Closure on a career that was hard-fought, and well-performed. Closure to the extraordinary performance that helped the United States win the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.

By not allowing Krieger these final two caps,  a player that most people will argue should still be the regular starter on the right or at least in the conversation, Ellis is prolonging the misery felt by those who follow this team and who care about the celebration of the players who helped the team achieve the level they are at now.

We’ve seen this before, Ellis deciding a player is done. Form be damned, history be damned, the usual manner of things be damned. Whitney Engen, Heather O’Reilly, and Lori Chalupny all suffered from having Jill Ellis break with the usual manner of players leaving the team. And now, Engen has traded soccer for law school, O’Reilly has gone overseas to play, and Chalupny has gone on to pursue coaching. None of them might have been in the mind of fans the way Krieger is, but their exits do give us a preview of how the situation is likely to play out.

The question becomes what should happen? What possible outcome would make all parties happy? Is there even an outcome that could happen that would make all sides happy?

We can firmly discount the idea that Krieger will ever become a full-time national team starter with minutes per year approaching levels that she’s had in the past. As much as it would probably delight Becky Sauerbrunn to have another pure defender on the team again, it’s just not going to happen. For better or worse Ellis is simply not interested in having her on the roster in that capacity. Unless there is a coaching change, which US Soccer seems unwilling to do, Krieger’s long-term national team future is clear. In that it’s over.

Trying to pretend this is not a factor, while the lingering resentment some fans have toward the team and the coaching staff only grows, doesn’t seem like a way forward either. Krieger is playing in Orlando, and playing well, so the media will have to ask about it every time she doesn’t make a roster. And Ellis will be asked about it as forwards are converted to fill the spot. Pretending it isn’t happening doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. The longer the song and dance goes on, the more long-time fans of the player and the team will grow to resent and resist the changes the coach is making. 

The solution that might make both sides able to move on is simply to give Krieger the two caps before the end of the year so Ellis can start 2018 and the World Cup-qualifying off without it hanging over her head. If Ellis allows Krieger get to 100 caps with all the pomp and circumstance that she deserves, it might mitigate some of the outright anger a particular segment of the fanbase might feel going into another cycle without one of the best right-backs in the women’s game.

It’s a win for both sides; Krieger gets recognition for a career well done on the national team at a level that is surpassed only by Joy Fawcett while Ellis looks like she has some compassion for a player who has bailed her out on more than one occasion by going against the coach’s instincts for game planning of attacking first and defending maybe. Krieger’s fans, and her family, and even Krieger herself get the type of closure that a player who has sacrificed as much as she has for this game deserves.

At the end of the day, Jill Ellis has told us that she is done with Ali Krieger. No amount of outrage from fans or think-pieces from media will change her mind. The only question that remains is if Ellis will let Krieger walk away as part of a group that just added its 36th member (out of 222 players capped over the team’s history) or if Ellis is going to let her stand there on the one side of the line and never let her across again.

In the end, Krieger needs her final two caps. 

And she deserves to get them. 

Image courtesy of Kelley Piper
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