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USWNT Soccer Star Casey Krueger's Northern Illinois Roots & Journey To The Olympics

Jamie Smed

The U.S. women’s national soccer team is trying to become the first women’s squad ever to win a gold medal after claiming a World Cup victory.

Casey Krueger (née Short) is one of the team’s first-time Olympians.

But just a few months ago, she said at apress conference she thought she might not ever have the chance. The defender was left off the 2019 World Cup team and battled injuries ahead of the games.

“I wasn’t sure if my time with the national team was done or not, and then ultimately got this call to come in and was so stoked just to get an opportunity,” she said.

Krueger’s unlikely road to the Olympics runs right through northern Illinois. She went to Naperville Central High School where she starred on the soccer and track team. She was the first girl ever to win the state title in the 400 and 800-meter race in the same year.

Ed Watson was her soccer coach at Naperville Central High School. He’s been the girls’ soccer head coach there for over 25 years.

“That's the type of athlete that we're talking about, just a once-in-a-generation type athlete,” he said.

Even though she patrols the national team’s defense now, Watson jokes that she was too good not to be in a position to score goals at Naperville Central.

“We would have been tough to score against, but you have to use that weapon,” he said. “So we moved her up, she played in the midfield and played on top for us and created a lot of opportunities for herself and her teammates.”

In 2008, Krueger scored 18 goals, one of the highest totals in a single season at Naperville Central. Her personal record was tied this past year by current NCHS star Molly O’Rear.

O’Rear says it means a lot to have someone like Casey to look up to for her and her teammates.

“It's just inspiring to think that someone who was in your shoes went to the same classes that you did, had the same coaches, had the same teachers really stepped up and decided to follow her dream,” said O’Rear, who still has a season left to break Krueger’s record.

For Coach Watson, it’s great to have her as an ambassador, since in his view this U.S. National Team has an impact much larger than soccer. The squad is a cultural force and, Watson says, they’re role models for young athletes -- especially girls. He says he wants his players to watch how Krueger acts and carries herself outside the pitch just as much as her style of play.

“There's a whole bunch of good players. She's a great person,” said Watson. “And that's what I will always remember about my opportunity to have -- I don't say coached Casey, because I probably just was more along the lines of enjoying the journey with Casey.”

Watson remembers her coming to summer workouts with the high school team even when she was playing club soccer and didn’t have to be there.

Since high school, she’s stayed physically close to her roots too. Krueger currently plays for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Chicago Red Stars, a half-hour from Naperville.

That’s given Naperville Central players like O’Rear the chance to meet her at Red Stars games.

“She came over and saw my [Naperville Central] sweater and she goes, ‘Oh, my gosh! I went there!’ and kind of talked a little bit and got her autograph,” she said.

She also ran into Krueger and got to talk with her -- like all good Chicagoland celebrity sightings -- at a Portillo’s.

O’Rear has caught a few of the Olympic matches so far, even though they’ve been on in the middle of the night with the games in Tokyo.

“I've been waking up against my parents' wishes, of course, but I got to see it. And I was actually lucky enough to see Casey go in, which was pretty dang cool,” O’Rear said.

She watches Krueger’s confidence and aggression. She takes note of the perfect technique; how pure each strike is and how the team responds to her leadership.

The thing O’Rear says she thinks about the most is how Krueger conquered adversity to make it from Naperville to the pinnacle of the sport.

“She got drafted second overall into the NWSL and in preseason tore her ACL for the second time. And I'm like, that's insane that she came back from that, that’s such a mental hit,” she said. “And she came back and is now a star in the NWSL. I don't think anybody has ever scored on her -- not when I’ve watched her.”

Krueger and Team USA dropped their first match to Sweden but bounced back versus New Zealand and are still gunning for Olympic Gold. O’Rear hopes if they do, maybe she’ll bring that gold medal back to Naperville Central for the folks back home to see.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.