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For Love & Country

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April 18, 2015

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the home opener for your WASHINGTON SPIRIT!” the announcer states, getting the crowd cheering and clapping as the Spirit and the FCKC starters walk onto the field. Once the players and their escorts are in place on either side of the midstripe, the announcer continues. “Now, please direct your attention to the Jumbo Tron on the scoreboard for a special message for our players.”

The Spirit players all look a bit confused. Even Ali frowns, wondering why as captain she was not informed of something other than the usual pre-game hoopla. No players like to have their pregame shaken up without warning. She glares at Parsons who just shrugs, also out of the know. Then a voice causes Ali to turn to the screen, her jaw on the ground.

“Hey, Washington Spirit, this is the Spirit Company with the Corps of Engineers coming to you from Baghdad, Iraq,” Ashlyn states.

Ali’s eyes fill with tears as she sees her wife and the entire squad she leads on the screen. Ashlyn wears her desert ACU’s but they are accessorized by her Spirit scarf. The company dog sits beside her wearing a Spirit jersey. Ali’s hand goes to her mouth to muffle her sob.

“We want to wish you all good luck in your home opener and for your whole season. We’re looking forward to watching your games online and hope to be cheering you on to the championship in September. You take care of business there and we’ll take care of it here. And to you, number 11, I love you.”

Ali blushes through her tears. “I love you, too,” she mumbles to the pre-recorded message.

Sgt Andrews stiffens. “COMPANY! ATTENTION!”

The entire group comes to attention and salutes the players. They then start to cheer as the camera fades out, Ashlyn’s smile wide as she stares seemingly right at her wife until the screen goes dark.

The crowd goes wild! The Spirit players are clapping. Tori and Crystal are hugging Ali, who is trying to compose herself. She is almost there when she is wrapped up by Lauren, Becky, ARod and HAO.

“That was freakin’ awesome, Kriegs!” HAO says.

“Totally cool!” ARod agrees.

“You might want to think about dating her,” Lauren teases.

Ali laughs and nods. “It’s crossed my mind.”

Her NT teammates chuckle as they go back to their team for the National anthem and the eventual start of the game.


 

Ali smiles as the camera comes on.

“I’m standing beside Ali Krieger, captain of the Washington Spirit and member of the US Women’s National Team,” the local sports reporter begins. “You all played a great game tonight and came up with a decisive win. Think that opening message helped?” he asks with grin.

Ali laughs, her nose crinkling and her eyes bright with happiness. “Well, it sure as heck didn’t hurt.” They both chuckle. “But seriously, we were ready for the defending champions and really stuck to our game plan. Christine and Crystal were great up top and did everything right to help us put points on the board.”

They talk a little more about the game and the upcoming World Cup. Finally, as he goes to end the interview, Ali interrupts.

“Uh, if I can, I just have one more thing to say not soccer related.”

He nods. “Be my guest.”

“We want a send a huge thank you to Spirit Company for the good luck message at the beginning. Our whole season is dedicated to you all. Please stay safe and come home soon, especially you, Lieutenant Harris. And to everyone watching, remember to thank and pray for our military service members who work 24/7 around the world to protect our freedom and way of life. Thanks, guys!” she finishes, waving to the camera.

The reporter smiles and turns to the camera, letting Ali break away to go sign autographs and take pictures. As she does, many express hopes that Ashlyn gets home soon and stays safe. Ali is so happy for the appreciation being shown for her wife and other service personnel.

And more than one child asks about the dog tags once more in their place above the defender’s heart.


 

“That was SERIOUSLY the coolest thing ever! And I can’t believe Ash pulled it off!” HAO adds.

“Well, I did some research when I realized Mark was just as stumped by the message. Turns out Ash and my father were the ones that contacted the home office and arranged the surprise,” Ali explains.

“That is so awesome,” Lauren says.

Ali nods in agreement. She is out for a late dinner with those three and Crystal. As the defender turned forward sits down. HAO pats her on the shoulder.

“I can’t believe you’re not going to Canada with us, Crys.”

Crystal shrugs. “Hey, they team is heavy up front and in the back. Won’t lie and say it doesn’t hurt but I believe Jill when she says I was number 24 and the hardest cut she had to make.”

“So what are you going to do?” ARod asks.

“Well, she said I will be an alternate so I plan to trip you as you leave tonight,” she says with a wink, making the others laugh. “No, seriously, I know I have what it takes to make the team. I plan to work my ass off this season and show her that next time there is an opening, I better be in the top 23.”

Lauren pats her on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Uh, no pun intended.”

The group laughs as their appetizers arrive. Crystal grabs a tater skin and layers it up with whipped cream and extra bacon. The others look at her enviously as they avoid the extras. Crystal chuckles.

“Oh, and I plan to eat everything Dawn says you all shouldn’t eat in front of every damn one of you guys,” she teases as she takes a big bite.

The others laugh. They have a good time as talk turns from soccer to families, antics of little Ryan, and anything else that helps them forget about work for a little while.


 

Ali walks into her house just before midnight. She is not surprised to see her father has just gotten home after a date with his fiancé. Ali walks over and pulls him into a big hug.

“Thank you so, so much, Daddy, for helping Ash with that message. It meant...oh, it meant so much to me,” she says, unable to stop the tears she had fought back earlier.

He hugs her tightly. “I was happy to do it. When she emailed me I couldn’t wait to help her get it set up.”

“So, wait, how long has this been planned?” she asks leaning back to look into his eyes.

He grins smugly. “Since you were in Portugal.”

Ali rolls her eyes. “You both suck SO much!”

Ken chuckles and kisses her cheek. “Love you, sweetheart.”

Ali grins and gives him another hug. “Oh, fine. I guess I love you, too.”

Ali heads up to her room and turns on her computer. She pulls open her email and types up a quick email to her wife.


 

Dear Ashlyn,

In case you didn’t get to see it, we won our home opener! The whole team played great and really stepped up their game. I won’t swear to it, but I think they were inspired by a special message played right before the Star Spangled Banner. I think you know what I mean. ;o)

Honestly, that was the sweetest, most amazing thing I have ever seen. Thank you isn’t enough. I am exhausted or I would type more. I will get you a proper email in the morning.

I love you so much. Thank you again, sweetheart. Talk to you soon.

Love always,
Alex


 

April 27, 2015

Ali finishes packing her suitcase and sighs. She sits down on her bed and slowly looks around her room. Last night the Spirit had beaten Sky Blue 3-1 in New Jersey. This afternoon she’d be taking a flight to California for the final month long camp in the run up to the World Cup. She’d have a brief return to DC for the Lauren Holiday inspired “She Believes” campaign appearance but other than that she wouldn’t be in the room she had shared with her wife until sometime in early July. Hopefully she’d be returning a World Cup champion.

She smiles as she lifts the picture frame that sits on her nightstand. She strokes a finger down Ashlyn’s cheek. In this photo Ashlyn’s head is thrown back, caught mid-laugh at the antics of Kyle on the beach in the blonde’s hometown. Her two favorite people having fun in one picture. The pure joy it catches is the reason it is her favorite of the duo.

She sets it down and picks up another photo. In this one, Ashlyn sits on a bench at the Maryland SoccerPlex, her long legs stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles, as Ali sits beside her in her Spirit kit. The two are staring at each other, smiling at something one of them said. It was a moment of candid love that one of the Spirit photographers caught for them.

She sets that one down and picks up one more. This one is posed. Ashlyn looks dashing in her uniform and Ali is lovely in her wedding gown. They stand hand in hand, Ali’s back to Ashlyn’s front, in front of their wedding cake, ready to cut it with Ash’s ceremonial sabre. Their smiles are happy, filled with love and wonder at the amazing life spreading out in front of them. Ali sighs.

“We look so damn young,” she murmurs.

Back then her dream had been to win gold in the 2012 Olympics and then win the 2015 World Cup. After that perhaps take a year off to have their first child. Then the 2012 Games had been stolen from her by a reckless tackle. Ashlyn had simply shrugged and said then Ali would have to win gold in 2016 and THEN start their family.

“You’ve always been my biggest supporter, Ashlyn. I love you,” she whispers to the picture.

She gives it a kiss then sets it back down and sighs.

“All done?” her father asks from the doorway.

Ali blushes, not having realized he was standing there. She nods. “I think so. I just...I always pictured her there cheering me on. A deployment never entered my fantasies.”

Ken smiles. “I don’t think it entered hers, either.” He walks over and sits down beside her. “You know she’d be there if she could be. She didn’t do this to hurt you.”

Ali smiles. “I know. I’m not mad. Just sad.”

“Good.” He kisses her temple. “I am so proud of you sweetheart. I’ll be screaming at the TV through all three friendlies.”

Ali chuckles. “I know you will. I’ll see you in about a month for my She Believes event.”

“And then we’ll see each other again in Canada as my baby girl shows the world who the best right back in history is as she wins the Cup.”

Ali smiles. “Damn right,” she agrees.

The two share a warm hug, then gather up Ali’s bags so they can make the drive to the airport to start the two months of soccer insanity.


 

“UP! UP! UP!” Hope yells, watching as her backline moves up almost as one solid, brick wall.

This is their last practice before the first of 3 send-off games that will see the team through to Canada. From where she watches in the back, Hope couldn’t be happier with the four women who had become her starting back line: Krieger, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg and, in a surprise to all, Johnson. The youngster had stepped up like a seasoned pro when her childhood hero, Christie Rampone, had come up with an injury.

“WATCH THE LEFT FLANK!” Hope directs.

Though before the words are out of her mouth, Kling is there to cut off the pass to Sydney and Becky has filled in the gap so ARod can’t make a run on goal.

Yep, it was going to be a damn good couple of months, the keeper tells herself.

Ten minutes later, the team is trading cleats for sneakers or slides as they chatter in excitement. The next day is their first send-off game and everyone is feeling good. The coaches had already instituted a media lockdown to control what the players saw. Their impressions of themselves should be made on the pitch, not in the news. Everyone in USA warm-ups know what is at stake: The Cup or failure. A second place finish again would not cut it. It was time to bring the Cup home after a 16 year vacation.

“You looked great out there, Kriegs,” Hope says to the right back.

Ali smiles. “We all did. We’re going to do this, Hope. And we’re not going to need penalty kicks to do it this time,” she states firmly.

“Damn right!” Hope agrees.

The two continue to chat as they gather up their gear. Jill claps her hands to get everyone’s attention.

“Okay, ladies, get home, do your recovery and anything else you need to do. Dinner is promptly at 5:30, no excuses...Sydney,” she adds and everyone laughs.

“I swear! No nap today! Promise!” she says, having never lived down missetting her alarm clock and nearly missing a team meeting one time.

As the teams board the vans for the hotel, Ali smiles, thinking she’ll have just enough time to shower and make herself look pretty before a planned Skype with her wife.


 

“Hey, Kriegs, have a good chat with Ash?” Abby asks as Ali waits for the elevator.

Ali just turns her head. Her sad eyes say it all. Abby winces.

“Oh. She had to cancel?”

“Yeah. She sent an email. She’s having to go on a build with another team. Their lieutenant had a prefab wall fall on his head.”

“Ouch!”

“To say the least. So, she will be gone a couple days and will have to let me know when she’ll be available again,” Ali says.

Abby wraps an arm around her shoulder as they step onto the elevator car. “Sorry, Kriegs. Should have known it was bad news when you were waiting for the elevator alone.”

Ali manages a grin. “Yeah. Just don’t have the...the umph to walk the stairs. I feel a bit defeated. I’m hoping a nice, calm dinner with the team will make me feel better.”

Abby lifts an eyebrow. “Calm dinner? With this team? Have you met half of them?” she teases, making the defender chuckle.

In the dining room, the two split up to join others for dinner. Ali is doing her best to get in a better mood but it’s just not happening. Well, at least not until Jill calls for their “special guest” to enter the room.

Ali is the first to squeal, her hands covering her face as her mother walks in and yells, “Surprise!” followed by the moms of all the other players. Ali gets up and pulls her mother into a hug.

“Mom! Oh, Mom, you don’t know how much I needed to see you today!” Ali says, crying into her mother’s shoulder.

Deb kisses her daughter’s cheek. “Well, here I am, Alex.”

Ali just nods, too overcome to say much more. Her bad afternoon luckily gave way to a wonderful evening spent with her mom and the moms of her closest friends.


 

They beat Ireland 3-0.

They beat Mexico 5-1.

All the media agrees that the frontline had looked shaky but the backline had been superb. Questions about whether or not Krieger could concentrate on the game with her wife overseas had been answered with a resounding YES!

On May 18 the team gathers for a last practice before breaking for a few days for their She Believes initiative events. They are pulling on their cleats and talking about the last things they will be doing in their hometowns before heading off to the last send-off game and then, ultimately to Canada.

“I may take a day to go to the zoo,” Ali says thoughtfully.

“The zoo? We’re not wild enough animals for you?” Becky jokes.

Ali grins. “Well, almost. But really Ashlyn loves the zoo and we’d have been by now this year if she was here. I’m going to...to just feel close to her.”

“Oh, fuck, Kriegs is gonna steal an otter,” Pinoe says, shaking as if scared. “Will she be allowed to play the Cup while out on bail?” she asks Carli, grasping her as if in desperation.

Carli laughs. “How the hell would I know?”

“Ali,” Kelley says, with an unusually serious lilt to her voice.

Ali rolls her eyes. “Kell, I’m not going to steal an animal,” she says with a laugh.

“Ali,” the defender says again, her voice stiff.

Ali looks at her in confusion. Kelley is not looking at Ali. She is looking beyond the defender, towards the gate leading into the practice stadium. Ali frowns.

“What’s wrong with you? You look like- -” her voice trails off as she turns and sees what Kelley is looking at. “Oh my God,” she chokes out.

By now everyone is looking. Ali’s hands go to her heart, clasping the dog tags that had not been removed yet. Her legs feel like lead as she starts to walk towards the two men in uniform that are walking her way. Their faces are serious but as she gets closer she can see the compassion in their eyes. She recognizes one man and her heart leaps into her throat.

“Colonel Menninger...” she croaks.