The Penn State women’s soccer team has seen plenty of talent grace the green grass of Jeffrey Field over the years.
But that field, and program, also has become a pipeline to the world’s biggest stage for the sport.
Five Nittany Lions on three national teams will be hitting fields across Canada this month for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which kicks off in Edmonton on Saturday when China faces Canada in the opening game.
The U.S. national team will bring a pair of Nittany Lions to its games with veteran defender Ali Krieger and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. The host Canadians have defender Carmelina Moscato and goalkeeper Erin McLeod, and Costa Rica will have current Penn State midfielder Raquel Rodriguez. Moscato and McLeod finished their Penn State careers in 2005, while Krieger played the following season and Naeher wore blue and white for the last time in 2009.
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“It says a lot about our history, for sure,” said Nittany Lions assistant coach Ann Cook. “Penn State tradition, soccer tradition, is tremendous.”
Cook was speaking for the program with head coach Erica Walsh in California playing her role for international soccer, helping coach the U.S. under-20 team.
The five representatives matches Stanford for the second-most among college programs. Only North Carolina has more, with nine alumni on national team rosters.
Krieger will make her second World Cup appearance after being one of four U.S. women to play every minute in the 2011 World Cup. Krieger, who also plays professionally for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), is the starting right back for Team USA and scored the decisive goal to beat Brazil on penalty kicks in the 2011 quarterfinals.
McLeod is the most tenured veteran of all the Nittany Lions, making her third World Cup appearance to go with two Olympic trips, earning a bronze medal with Team Canada in 2012 in London. She is the 12th female soccer player to play in 100 career games for Canada. She also plays for the NWSL’s Houston Dynamo.
Moscato, who has played with three different NWSL teams, is not far behind McLeod in international experience, with 91 games to her credit, and she also picked up a bronze medal with Candada’s run at the London Olympics.
Krieger, Moscato and McLeod were all teammates on the 2005 Nittany Lion team that finished undefeated, losing in the NCAA semifinals on penalty kicks to Portland, which was led by Christine Sinclair — Canada’s scoring leader.
Naeher earned her first cap with the U.S. team last year, though she has been training with the national team since 2009. She earned the Golden Glove as the tournament’s top goalkeeper while minding the U.S. net at the 2008 under-20 World Cup, and was the NWSL’s Goalkeeper of the Year last season while playing for the Boston Breakers.
Rodriguez, who will be a senior this fall, also will be making her first World Cup appearance, as will her national team, which is the first Central American team to make the World Cup field. She has been a member of the team since 2012, and started 4 of 5 matches during regional qualifying last year.
“She’s making all of Central America proud,” Cook said. “It’s the first Central American team that’s qualified, and for her to be a current student-athlete, for her to be here and share those experiences with her current teammates and our current culture, it’s incredible.”
The three teams are all in separate pools for the first round, but if they end up facing one another in the knockout round, who gets the support from the Nittany Lions?
“I think it’s pretty easy for us to separate the kid from the country,” Cook said. “We’ll always root our kids on.”
The U.S., which is seeking its first world title since 1999, begins its run Monday night when it meets Australia in Winnipeg. Costa Rica will face Spain for its opener on Tuesday.
It also will be a happy moment to have the soccer spotlight back on the field after the tumultuous last few weeks for FIFA, the governing body, with nine executives indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges by the U.S. justice department.
“If anything, FIFA being in the spotlight right now,” Cook said, “if it’s spun correctly, should bring a little light to the fact that the women are playing it for the love of the game still.”