Life as a trailblazer can be boring. Before a recent indoor soccer game, Washington Warthog midfielder Kristine Lilly sat in her locker room in USAir Arena in Land-over, Md. She fiddled with her shin guard, adjusted a sock and stared at the clock, awaiting the start of the game. "It's lonely in here sometimes," she said above the peals of laughter and the hip-hop music booming from the locker room next door, where the rest of her teammates were gathered. "Next game I'm definitely bringing a book."
This season Lilly was the only female in the three-year-old Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL), which is composed mostly of former college players and past U.S. national team members. Collette Cunningham and Shannon Presley played sparingly in the CISL last year, but neither had Lilly's skills or credentials.
Though only 24, Lilly has been on the U.S. women's national team for eight years. No female U.S. team player has competed in more international games (98), and only four have scored more goals than Lilly's 37. Before graduating from North Carolina in 1993, Lilly, a four-time All-America, led the Tar Heels to four national titles.
"She is not here to be a superstar or to show guys up," said Warthog coach Jim Gabarra, whose wife, Carin, is a national team player and the women's soccer coach at Navy. "Lil is here to improve."
"I hope people don't see this as a media ploy," the incurably shy Lilly said after joining the Warthogs on Aug. 20, and you can believe her. While playing for Wilton ( Conn.) High, which she led to three state titles, Lilly would occasionally feign injury to avoid having to talk to the media.
"This is a chance for me to play," she said. "A lot of people on the national team either compete for their colleges or coach in the fall. I didn't really have anyone to work out with." The national team will resume training full time in January in preparation for the Olympic debut of women's soccer. "Because the indoor game is so fast, [playing for the Warthogs] will help my quickness, mentally and physically. It will force me to make earlier decisions when I have the ball. Guys are always a step ahead in quickness and strength."
Though Lilly missed the first two months of the indoor season because of her national team and soccer camp commitments, it didn't take long for the midfielder to become a favorite of the fans. During home games, little girls would scream "Kristine!" in unison, and small boys with large lungs chanted, "Put in the girl!"
Others fans, such as U.S. national team forward Mia Hamm, who lives in the Washington area, cheered a bit more quietly. At a game between the Warthogs and the Dallas Sidekicks, Hamm watched the action and said, "Lil is the most complete and consistent player we have. Offensively she is always a scoring threat, and defensively she rarely gets beat. The fact that she can come out here and compete says so much about her."
Lilly played only a few minutes in the Dallas game, a 10-5 Warthog loss. "She'll get a shift here and a shift there as she adjusts to the indoor game," said Gabarra. "Once she does, I don't see any ceiling." Indeed, by the end of the regular season, Lilly was playing three to five shifts a game.
Lilly, who was accustomed to the red, white and blue, hand-on-the-heart seriousness of a national-team game, also had to adjust to the snaggletoothed cartoon character on her jersey and the carnival atmosphere of a Warthog game: the roving band of entertainers known as the Boar Corps; the cute 22-year-old P.A. announcer who wades through the crowd with a microphone (causing teenage girls to swoon); and various Veeckian promotions and wacky contests. She had fun. On the sideline she would catch herself singing along with the nonstop music and watching the video clips of Elvis in Viva Las Vegas instead of watching the game.