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Why it’s wrong to leave Ali Krieger stuck at 98 caps

What does a program owe to the players that made it what it is?

Soccer: Women's National Team Friendly-Russia vs USA Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ali Krieger has 98 caps for the United States women’s national team. She helped them win a World Cup in 2015 and was a defining force on the right in the 2011 World Cup. She probably would have been a heavy contributor to the team’s 2012 Olympic run to a gold medal had she not cruelly torn her ACL during CONCACAF qualifying. All told, she has represented the United States and represented them well for nearly 10 years. That’s why it’s such a shame that she seems to be stuck shy of 100 caps.

Sports are a business and the national team is a meritocracy. That’s the refrain from people who would try to argue that no one “deserves” a milestone like 100 caps. To a certain extent, that’s true. US Soccer, nonprofit standing aside, wants to make money. And one of the best ways to make money is to win, because people love winners. To win, the best XI possible have to be on the field. A player with 200 caps who isn’t as good as a player with 10 caps should absolutely not be on the field when the results matter.

But sports can’t be divorced from emotion either. What ties fans to a team beyond the occasional walk-up ticket purchase is the emotional connection they feel. Sometimes that’s driven by patriotism or geographical preference. Sometimes it’s driven by individual player appreciation. Sometimes it’s passed down from generation to generation. Whatever the reason, fans are fans for more than just “value for money.” That’s why they’ll still come to games even when their team is losing, even when things on the field don’t make sense, even if it costs hundreds - sometimes thousands - in travel and accommodations. The emotional value of sports can’t be discounted as part of the fan experience. Emotion is what makes this a game that fans love, beyond money, sometimes beyond reason. And the emotional value of getting Krieger to 100 caps, both for her and for the fans, is worth the cost in terms of minutes on the field and possible impact on results.

Ali Krieger deserves to reach 100 caps. It would be so incredibly easy to get her there. First, the United States has two friendlies against New Zealand coming up in September. These are not games that will help them prepare for any kind of tournament and won’t even be the last friendlies of the year, with another two set for Canada in November. They’re not must-win and with respect to the Football Ferns, they’re probably not going to require the kind of all-in crazed effort the United States threw at Brazil to come back and win 4-3 in the Tournament of Nations. It’s a low-risk proposition to put Krieger in at right back, and because Jill Ellis has already said that her experimentation phase is closing out, it’s not as if Krieger would be taking up a spot from some RB that Ellis has yet to evaluate.

Second, Ali Krieger can still play well. It wouldn’t be a cynical attempt at marketing a numerical milestone with an old player who can’t function for more than 20 minutes out there. Krieger is certainly capable of going 60 minutes or a half or even 30 as a sub while playing to the best of her ability, which is still substantial. Even if she makes a mistake, what’s really the risk here? Is the US program so fragile that after some losses against top nations like France and now Australia, a bad result against New Zealand would be crippling? I promise you, by the time World Cup qualifying rolls around and the USWNT is bulldozing CONCACAF minnows again, no one will remember if we cut it close against New Zealand.

It’s poor repayment of Krieger’s faithful service to this program to let her sit at 98. Jill Ellis has already made it clear she doesn’t think there’s a place for Krieger in this program as we approach 2019 and it would be a real surprise if she made the next World Cup roster. In the grand scheme of things, that’s fine. Players get older and get phased out of the program. But where there is room to honor a player’s service and to reward supporters’ loyalty, US Soccer should take the opportunity.

Who knows, perhaps it was Ellis’ plan all along to bump Krieger up to 100 before really letting her phase out of the program. So far, Krieger hasn’t played a game since an April 6 friendly against Russia, when she subbed in for the second half, but she did have a full 90 against England during the SheBelieves Cup. And to be entirely fair to Ellis, she seemed very intent on evaluating Taylor Smith at right back for Tournament of Nations; it’s legitimate to want to see what Smith can do under tournament conditions when Krieger is already a known quantity. (Though it was surely irritating for Krieger’s club coach Tom Sermanni, who had to see his starting center back sit on the bench for three games then do a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to Orlando the day before they played second-place team Chicago.)

But just in case Jill Ellis or Sunil Gulati is reading this (why wouldn’t they be; we’re pretty sure USSF closely follows the opinions of Stars & Stripes FC), hi guys. When a player gives you their all for so long, it really behooves you to acknowledge their work. That’s true of sports and it’s true of any other workplace. Just two caps. Ali Krieger gets a nice memento of her time helping the United States win a lot of stuff, fans get some closure, and you get some media attention. That’s a win-win-win, and everybody loves a winner.