In Full Bloom
Long overshadowed, 36-year-old Kristine Lilly is now the high-scoring captain of a U.S. team out to win its -- and her -- third World Cup title
Posted: Tuesday September 4, 2007 11:03AM; Updated: Tuesday September 4, 2007 12:16PM
Shortly before she left Brookline, Mass., for the 2004 Olympics, Kristine Lilly was walking her golden retriever, Scribner, when the dog suddenly fixated on a guy in front of a fire station. Or maybe it was the garbage the guy was lugging to the curb that caught Scribner's nose. Whatever. Bottom line, the dog dragged Lilly toward firefighter David Heavey. They struck up a conversation, during which Heavey was surprised to learn that Lilly was a fixture on the U.S. soccer team. "I had no idea who she was," he says.
Now, Heavey knew a thing or two about sports. He had played hockey and golf at UConn. He lived and died with the Boston Red Sox. He worked in a firehouse -- he'd seen his share of ESPN. But like most sports fans, his familiarity with women's soccer was pretty much limited to Mia Hamm (married to No- mah! ), Julie Foudy (all over ESPN as a World Cup commentator) and Brandi Chastain (something about a sports bra). Lilly told him that if she won a gold medal in Athens she'd bring it by the station. Heavey's fellow firemen told him, "She just said that to get rid of you," but a few weeks later she was back, showing off the gold she'd earned through a typical Lilly performance. She played 579 of 600 minutes in six Olympic matches, scored in two one-goal victories and a 1-1 tie, set up the decisive goal in the final with a perfectly taken corner kick -- and was completely overshadowed by the swan songs of Hamm and Foudy, as well as by the emergence of forward Abby Wambach. That medal paid bigger dividends for Lilly, though. She and Heavey were married last October.
"Kristine never got the recognition she deserved when we were all playing," says Foudy. "The quieter types don't get the attention." That's about to change. Lilly -- who just turned 36 -- is now the face of the squad favored to win the fifth Women's World Cup, which starts next week in China. Coach Greg Ryan has not only named her captain but also moved her from the midfield to an attacking spot.
Wife, leader, striker: Welcome to the New Adventures of Old Kristine.
Lilly has been with the national team almost since there's been a national team. She played her first match, as a 16-year-old, on Aug. 3, 1987, against China. It was the 16th game the American women had ever played. She has now made 331 international appearances, giving her 56 more caps than any other player, man or woman. For the bulk of her career Lilly has been the most active left winger this side of Sean Penn. Former coach Tony DiCicco, who led the U.S. to the 1999 World Cup title, remembers one game in which a Canadian player finally threw her hands up and said, "Just go ahead and pass it to her. I'm sick of chasing her around."
Ryan moved Lilly up top -- where she played regularly at North Carolina and sporadically with the national team -- to get her more touches, but the change has the added benefit of saving her legs. "Forwards, all they do is sprint and walk. Midfielders do the work," jokes Foudy (a former midfielder, of course). Says Lilly, "I'm smarter now. I don't do the unnecessary running I used to do. When you're young you feel like you can run around, and you should."