HEIDELBERG, Germany – Ali Krieger didn't know anyone in Germany, didn't speak a word of the language.
But Germany had a professional women's soccer league and the U.S. didn't four years ago, and that was all the convincing Krieger needed to pack her bags and move halfway across the world. Now, thanks to that bold gamble, Krieger is back in Germany, starting as a defender for the United States in the Women's World Cup.
"It's like coming back to my home," the defender said Thursday. "I feel so comfortable. I feel happy and excited. I'm so happy I get to show the girls where I've lived the past three-and-a-half, four years, and show them around a bit and show them why I love the country so much."
The U.S. team plays its second game of the World Cup against Columbia on Saturday in Sinshein, Germany.
Though Krieger was a two-time All-American at Penn State, she had the misfortune of finishing her college career in 2007, two years before the Women's Professional Soccer began play. She didn't want to sit idle after just catching the eye of the U.S. coaching staff.
So when her coach suggested she go to Germany, Krieger figured she had nothing to lose. She wanted to be a regular with the national team, and that wasn't going to happen if she was only playing pick-up games.
"I wanted to be at this level and I wasn't here yet," said Krieger, who grew up in Dumfries, Va. "And why not? If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. I can always come home."
After a weeklong tryout, Krieger signed with FFC Frankfurt. The Bundesliga powerhouse had 11 members of Germany's World Cup champion team at the time, including captain Birgit Prinz, the tournament's all-time scoring leader; and Steffi Jones, now the president of organizing committee for this year's event.
"Oh, hi, can I play with you guys? That doesn't happen every day," Krieger said, laughing. "I knew all these players from on paper and on TV and I actually saw them in person, so I was really excited."
Though she started her first game with Frankfurt and helped the club to a rare "treble" — the Bundesliga title, German Cup and European women's championship — in her first season, the transition was not always smooth.
The style of soccer in Germany is much different from the U.S. Instead of dribbling the entire length of the field — or as far as they can — players in Germany touch the ball once, maybe twice, before passing to a teammate. When mistakes are made, there are no encouraging shouts of, "That's OK," or "Good effort." Instead, her teammates would let Krieger know in no uncertain terms what she had done wrong.
"I felt like the Germans were being mean to me at training but they were actually just trying to help," she said. "I learned really quick — which made me a better player. I'm appreciative of the way they treated me. It's just the language and, of course, as an American, I had to learn that. No offense to them, I love them to death and I love my teammates. I respect them. That's how I had to learn."
And the education wasn't just on the field. Krieger took an intensive German language program, spending three hours a day in class. Afterward, she'd head to practice where she'd try out what she'd learned on her teammates.
"That was really good," she said. "They'd say, 'OK, that's too perfect German. You could maybe say this because we actually say this. You can tell you're a foreigner if you say this.' ... I would just speak, I wasn't afraid to just talk. If they make fun of me, they make fun of me. But that's how I learned."
Now Krieger is so adept she does interviews in German, switching easily back and forth to accommodate German and American reporters.
Pia Sundhage took over as coach shortly after Krieger left for Germany, and Krieger had some fears that being so far away might keep her out of the mix for the U.S. team. But Sundhage, a Swede, knows all about the German league and how good its players are, and was impressed that the young American was more than holding her own.
Krieger helped Frankfurt win the German Cup again this season.
"Her experience in the Bundesliga has been good for her," Sundhage said. "When I saw her in 2008, she was a different player than she is today. She's more technical. Her decision making in attack reminds me a bit of the way Germany is playing."
Sundhage called Krieger up for a May 22, 2010, game — against Germany, no less — and she's been a staple on the U.S. team ever since. When veteran defender Heather Mitts suffered a hamstring injury earlier this season, it was Krieger who took her spot.
"It's hard to come in and out, like 'OK, is she going to fit into the starting lineup?'" midfielder Shannon Boxx said. "We just feel on the same page now. Two days ago, her game was amazing. She played so great for us, defensively and offensively. I'm glad she was able to do it the way she needed to do it. We need her on this team."
On Tuesday, the U.S. beat North Korea 2-0 in its opening World Cup match.
Krieger's contract expired at the end of the season, and she's unsure what she'll do when the World Cup is over.
In the meantime, all she wants to do is take her U.S. teammates on a tour of Frankfurt, her home away from home — and the site of the July 17 final.
"This is something I've dreamed of for a long, long time, to play in a World Cup," Krieger said. "Anywhere in the world to have a final, it's just amazing that it's actually in Frankfurt, the place I've lived the last three and a half years. Who would have thought?"