JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Amidst the hubbub of Tom Sermanni's first match as coach and Christen Press' dominant debut, it would have been easy to overlook.
But one of the best moments of the U.S. women's team's 4-1 win against Scotland on Saturday night unfolded before the players even walked onto the field.
It came in the team's dressing room at EverBank Field, with as simple an act as a player pulling on her jersey.
The player was defender Ali Krieger, and the jersey her familiar No. 11. Before she could slip it over her head, she got a pep talk from forward Abby Wambach.
"Abby talked to me before the game and told me, 'You know what? It's going to be a great night. Just take a deep breath. It's going to be a great, great night for you,'" Krieger said. "I just took a deep breath, put on that jersey and thought, 'Wow, I made it back.'"
Krieger had indeed made it back -- an achievement more than a year in the making -- and Wambach's prediction of a joyous night in Jacksonville came true as the U.S. romped past Sermanni's native Scotland in a victory that was never in doubt.
"This was probably the toughest year in my life," Krieger said. "To be able to start 2013 with such an appearance and game is a great feeling."
It was the first match of 2012 that changed everything for Krieger. She tore her right medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments during a 14-0 win against the Dominican Republic in Olympic qualifying, sparking a furious rehabilitation in hopes of making it back in time to compete in London.
She was close, but not close enough for then-coach Pia Sundhage to name her to the squad, and she had to watch from Germany, where she played with FFC Frankfurt.
She was far from forgotten, though. A few days after her injury, the rest of the team paid tribute by copying Krieger's signature tattoo -- a cursive "Liebe," which means love in German -- onto their left forearms. And during the Olympics, Megan Rapinoe celebrated a goal against Colombia by pulling out a note to wish Krieger a happy birthday.
On Saturday, it was clear how much it meant to have Krieger return to right back.
In summing up the evening, it took about four seconds for captain Christie Rampone to bring up Krieger, calling her return "a big impact."
The crowd of 18,656 noticed as well.
Krieger's first major contribution -- an 8th minute pass down the right side to Press -- drew a big cheer, and she was held up the longest after the match by fans seeking an autograph or high-five.
Her defensive efforts were somewhat limited in a match where the U.S. largely had its way, but she and forward-turned-left back Kelley O'Hara were useful in getting up the field to support Press (two goals, one assist) and Tobin Heath (assist), who engineered most of the team's offensive chances.
"She adds something really dynamic and unique to the outside-back position," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "With her and Kelley wide, they are so attacking-minded. I think that's the future, for us to improve in the final third, making sure we're building out of the back and keeping possession. ... That's what we need, and it's good to see her back. We've all missed her, I've missed her."
Krieger's teammates showed her that love on the first day of training camp this week, when defender Heather Mitts hit her
Saturday was a more serious affair, with the back line focused on trying to jell under Sermanni and without Amy LePeilbet, who recently underwent ACL surgery of her own.
It's hard to complain about a 4-1 win (though Scotland was able to make the U.S. pay for a poor clearance when Kim Little smashed home a goal in the 54th minute), and Sermanni was happy with the performance and Krieger's output.
"The way she played tonight is the way she is in training," he said. "She's uncompromising. You know what you get out of her, and she's one of those players you wouldn't want to be playing against week in and week out. That energy and enthusiasm coming back in the squad, and to see her back in there, is terrific."
The next step for Krieger is making sure she stays healthy and in form for the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada. She said a desire to get back into the national team played a large role in her decision to leave Frankfurt -- where she played for five years -- for a spot with the Washington Spirit of the upstart National Women's Soccer League.
If Saturday is any indication, her spot is as locked down as it was during the 2011 Women's World Cup, when she hit the decisive penalty kick in a quarterfinal shootout victory against Brazil and was one of only four U.S. starters to play all 600 minutes of the tournament.
And she plans to keep it that way.
"I thought about it every day, and I wasn't going to stop until I put that jersey back on for the country and for this team and myself and my family," Krieger said. "These girls helped me and motivated me every single day to do that. That's my goal, to continue to play at this level.
"I'm not going to stop until you have to pull me off the field or I'm crawling off the field."