‘You’re Always A Part Of The Program’: Naeher, Krieger, & The Soccer Journey That Began In Happy Valley
One of the longest lines of fans assembled outside Jeffrey Field’s gates last season formed an hour and a half before Penn State women’s soccer kicked off a first-round NCAA Tournament match against Stony Brook on a cold November evening.
Although the match was an exciting beginning to what would turn out to be a memorable tournament run for the Nittany Lions, many fans were there to witness the homecoming of two of the program’s most successful alumni: Ali Krieger and Alyssa Naeher. The pair sat at a small folding table on the far side of the field, taking pictures and signing autographs for a throng of fans carrying sharpies, posters, and iPhones.
Krieger played for Penn State from 2003-2006 before launching her professional career overseas. Naeher joined her in Happy Valley in 2006 and spent four seasons with the Nittany Lions before embarking on her own career.
Almost fifteen years since they first stepped on Jeffrey Field as teammates, they’ve established themselves as world-class, influential players at the front of a growing push for equality in the global game. They’re reigning world champions with two World Cup winners medals, a slew of other international triumphs, and crucial roles for their current NWSL club teams — Naeher is the starting goalkeeper for the Chicago Red Stars while Krieger and her wife Ashlyn Harris currently play for the Orlando Pride.
This period of shared success began in Happy Valley, and the pair has recently returned and have been recognized at Penn State. They were honored at halftime during Penn State football’s game against Indiana, and Krieger delivered a special Keynote presentation on campus in October. But Naeher described her arrival at Penn State as a normal journey and familiar choice for a top-level college player.
“I didn’t really have anything set, idea wise, of where I wanted to go,” Naeher said in a phone interview last fall one day before she and the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) defeated Costa Rica 6-0 in a friendly match. She quickly made her decision after visiting campus as a recruit.
“As soon as I stepped on campus I fell in love with the place,” she said.
Naeher, playing under current Wisconsin head coach Paula Wilkins, started every match as a freshman goalkeeper for the Nittany Lions. But adjusting to the role of a communicative leader of the team’s defense as a self-described “quieter, reserved person” took some time.
“I’m here as a young freshman trying to learn and I’ve got All-American teammates playing in front of me, who am I to tell them what to do?” she recalled.
Krieger, one of those All-American teammates and a senior at the time, offered some advice that has become a sort of legendary and telling moment between the two players on a flight home from a Penn State away match.
“She basically just said to me, we have to hear you. You have to speak up, you have to direct us,” Naeher said. “Hearing that from her, someone who I had a great deal of respect for, just kind of meant a lot, and just kind of showed me that it was a necessary part of the position.”
Naeher said she continued to learn from Krieger throughout the season they spent together in Happy Valley and during the team’s spring sessions, taking note of everything from the senior’s mentality to “how she took care of herself.” They faced each other as professionals in Germany several years later, and Naeher eventually joined Krieger on the USWNT roster.
“Just having a friendly familiar face is always helpful when you’re coming into this environment as a young player,” Naeher said. “I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Ali, not just as a player but as a person, and to be able to come and to play together again was something that was really cool.”
Both Krieger and Naeher look back on their Penn State days fondly, and laud the program, led by head coach Erica Dambach, that remains connected to them. In her keynote address on campus, Krieger mentioned the “blue-collar mentality” that defines the team’s philosophy of hard work and how it had helped her through difficult times she experienced while in college and beyond. Naeher said that the program’s structure was key to transitioning to a professional career.
“They treat those players and they treat that program as close to a professional environment as you could possibly get,” she said. “The transition between playing in college and then going into the professional league, it’s always going to be a jump, it’s always going to raise the level and the intensity and the expectations and everything, as it should be. But I was prepared as I could could have been leaving school and going into the professional league.”
Krieger and Naeher’s continued connection with Penn State women’s soccer continues beyond the autograph sessions and halftime appearances. Several current players remembered Naeher visiting them during a team trip to Chicago, and were fueled in several late-season matches by Krieger’s presence in the locker room.
Naeher explained that the “family atmosphere” of the program, sparked by Wilkins and developed by Dambach, have helped maintain alumni connections in support of a team that is consistently among the nation’s best and won its first national championship in 2015.
“Once you’re part of the program, you’re always part of the program,” Naeher said.
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