MONTREAL – Liebe.
That's the word tattooed on Ali Krieger's left forearm. It means "love" in German: love of sport, love of team, love of time spent in that country.
Here, this week, liebe also means rivalry.
The United States defenseman has wanted to face the Germans from before the beginning of the Women's World Cup. She even called Germany out before the tournament started during the U.S. team's big sendoff in New York a month ago.
"That's what I want the final to be," she said. "We are coming to play against them and beat them."
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U.S. vs. Germany is not the final, but it might very well be the match of the entire tournament. Tuesday's semifinal pits the Germans, who are ranked No. 1 in the world, against the No. 2 Americans, who will be matched physically, mentally and tactically by Silvia Neid's side. Germany is pursuing an unprecedented double – world championships in both men's and women's soccer – and although the Germans were arguably outplayed by France in the quarterfinals despite winning on penalty kicks, they did what German soccer teams always seem to do: withstand and survive.
It will be up to Krieger and her fellow backliners – so far airtight with a shutout streak of 423 minutes along with goalkeeper Hope Solo – to stop them.
"This is what makes it so fun," Krieger said Sunday. "This is why we're here. We want to beat the best team in the world."
Krieger has a bit of an advantage, having played five years with FFC Frankfurt and helping that club win a UEFA Champions League title. She reads the German newspapers "as often as I can" and joked Sunday "I've played with them more than against them." Her "liebe" and respect of the German style of soccer transformed her game. "That's where I had to become a true professional," she said.
There's some experience with the Germans among the younger players as well. Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston were on the U.S. team that lost to Germany in the group stage of the 2012 Under-20 Women's World Cup and then avenged the defeat with a win in the title game. A lot of the players on that U-20 German side are now on the senior team.
"It takes an organized team to defend Germany," Brian said Sunday. "They're so good on the ball, and in tight spaces."
So how do the Americans win this game? That's quite the dilemma, as the aggressive style that felt like a revelation against China on Friday in Ottawa might not work against Germany. China wasn't much of an offensive threat, so a wide-open offense didn't carry much risk. That is not the case with the Germans.
"They're very good 1 v 1 attacking," Krieger said. "They can shoot from anywhere. And they're very good in the air."
So while it might seem that the force applied against China is certainly the way to go for the rest of the tournament, the return of Megan Rapinoe and perhaps Abby Wambach to the starting lineup opens up opportunities for the Germans, too. Counterattacks by Germany will pressure Krieger and the defense in a way that hasn't been seen in this tournament so far. Solo, who has only faced a dozen shots in the entire World Cup, might have to deal with a lot more commotion in front of her net.
"Every time we play Germany," Brian said, "it's a physical matchup."
Brian has no idea if she will start again, but she will likely be a key part of the strategy. Her turn at defensive midfielder against China was brilliant, even though she was constantly tempted to go forward and join the attack. More pressure will be on her to serve as that midfield cog with the offensive-minded Rapinoe back in the lineup after a suspension. Asked about the possibility of playing along with Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd – perhaps in a 4-3-2-1 formation – Brian said, "It would be nice."
This is a game that will define the entire tournament for the Americans. A victory brings redemption for head coach Jill Ellis in her reliance on veterans like Wambach and Rapinoe. A defeat may cause some turmoil and turnover, with some of the younger players already grabbing starring roles here. The U.S. is peaking, but plateauing here will not be enough. Not against this opponent.
"Germany's gonna be a different game," Brian said. "We're gonna come at them, they're gonna come at us, and it's just gonna be a very free-flowing game, which opens a lot of space."
Whether it's high-scoring or a scoreless draw through 120 minutes, this match will be grueling and emotional. There will be a trip to the final gained, and no "liebe" lost.