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Column:: Ali Krieger helps U.S. defense hold its own at Women’s World Cup

United States defender Ali Krieger is introduced during a send-off ceremony ahead of the FIFA Women’
U.S. defender Ali Krieger acknowledges fans during a World Cup send-off ceremony in Harrison, N.J., on May 26.
(Julio Cortez / AP)

Defender Ali Krieger was a vital and constant presence for the U.S. women’s team in the last two World Cup tournaments. She was so impressive in playing every minute of every game during their runner-up finish in 2011 that she was named to the tournament’s top 11 at right back, and she started every game of their championship run in 2015.

Krieger’s time on the field has been reduced in France, but her presence hasn’t been diminished — and she might have as big an influence on the Americans’ success as she has ever had.

Krieger, 34, was a surprise roster choice after she had been dropped from the national team and brought back to the fold for a friendly against Belgium on April 7. Coach Jill Ellis’ pieced-together defense figured to be fast and capable of supporting an already fearsome attack, but would players be tempted to take chances and leave openings for opponents to score?

Any questions about possible vulnerability on defense were silenced by the team’s three shutouts and 18 goals scored in group play here. Any doubts about the wisdom of giving Krieger a place on the squad were wiped away by her solid performance against Chile and her success in helping mentor the team’s 11 World Cup newcomers, including four first-timers on defense.

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“Ali’s incredible. Look at what she’s done for this team, and now stepping into a maybe a little different role than she’s played in past tournaments,” said Kelley O’Hara, a fellow defender and three-time World Cup participant. “She’s great. I’m so thankful that she’s here. I’ve always wanted her here. I’ve always thought she needed to be here and I think that it’s only improved our team by having her here. It’s a long tournament so we need people that are able to step in, fill big roles, and have that experience like she does.”

Krieger, who has a U.S. Soccer coaching license, has easily adapted to the role of advising her younger and less experienced teammates. When she whispers a word here or there or offers a tip now and then, her words are received with attention and respect. As they should be.

“I really enjoy it. I really have. Just helping with little details, little things,” she said at the team’s hotel Saturday, as the women continued preparing for Monday’s knockout-round game against Spain at Stade Auguste-Delaune.

“No matter who’s playing on the field or in your position you always help each other and you want them to be successful, and we always kind of lean on each other and give each other little tidbits on what we think. Even at halftime we’ll bring each other together and talk about what we need to do and what we see, if they don’t see it on the field. So it’s been really enjoyable, and especially, I’ve kind of taken this new role on, I feel like, just leading the game-changers in a way as best I can because we all have to be ready and willing to give everything we have in order to win. And whatever I can do in that way, that’s what I want to do, both on and off the field.”

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The all-for-one and one-for-all mentality is a genuine and genuinely powerful force for the U.S. team. The depth of their talent is undeniable, but talent alone doesn’t guarantee victory. “What we’re translating onto the field is really magical,” Krieger said, but there’s chemistry and communication behind the magic.

“I think we all have to be so connected off the field because it translates on the field as well,” she said. “You’re going to fight 10 times more for that player and that teammate than you are if you have no idea of who they were and didn’t know a little bit of their background or their family or where they come from. I think that’s so important for this group to have that type of feeling because you give a little bit extra, and it goes a long way.”

Asked to rank this team against past U.S. squads, Krieger called it “the best team we’ve had.” “Each and every one of us is capable enough to get into the game and be a starter. I don’t know if I could say from previous teams. You can look at every player and no one would blink an eye if they were to start the game…. We have such an amazing group of talented, strong, bad-ass women that, on the other side of things, outside of football, it would be so rewarding to win the WC with such celebrated women. Independent, driven, determined women. That’s something I don’t know if I’ve felt before with this group.”

O’Hara reserved judgment on whether the current squad is the best version. “This is a great U.S. team. There have been incredible U.S. teams throughout time, and I think you can only be the best if you win,” O’Hara said. “So talk to me in, like, 17 days, is it? And then I’ll answer that question better.”

First, they must defeat Spain, which Krieger described as a crafty and technical team that’s smart on the ball and intelligent in making decisions. “It’s going to be such an enjoyable game,” she said. “Right now, it gets down to the nitty gritty, and this is why we came to the tournament. Time to show up.”

Krieger’s importance is sure to show up the rest of the way, even if she’s not on the field.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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