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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."
Lilly catches plenty of grief for being 36. Her teammates call her Grandma and Old Lady, and they really like pointing out that when she earned her first cap, defender Stephanie Lopez was one year old. But Lilly's probably in better shape than any of them. "She's a specimen," says defender Cat Whitehill. "She looks like she could run for days. Here I am 25, sometimes my face is droopy and I have bags under my eyes, and Lil is always ready for something. She is fit, she is trim, and she's playing some of the best soccer of her life."
That's saying something, because Lilly has been one of the game's most clutch performers since the late Reagan years. Her biggest play came in the 1999 World Cup final when she cleared a Chinese shot off the line in sudden death, preserving the scoreless tie and sending the game to a shootout, in which she calmly buried her penalty kick. (A couple of minutes later Chastain drilled her PK and doffed her jersey, and Lilly's heroics were immediately forgotten.) Now, though, she's scoring at a Hamm-like pace. The sly, 5'4" Lilly and the powerful, 5'11" Wambach play off each other beautifully. Lilly has scored 22 times in 32 games over the past two years—during which the U.S. has gone 28-0-4—and her 126 goals are second in national team history to Hamm's 158.
The move to captain wasn't quite as natural. She assumed the armband from Foudy, who never had trouble telling anyone what was on her mind. Lilly, on the other hand, is a lead-by-example type who is still learning to be more outspoken. "Kristine's not going to say the first thing that comes into her head," says Ryan. "When she says something everybody stops and listens—I listen, the players listen, the assistant coaches listen. It's something she really means."
DESPITE UNDERGOING a massive overhaul—10 of the 21 players on the World Cup roster were not on the team during the '04 -Olympics—the U.S. will be the team to beat in China, which is hosting the Cup after being forced to give it up because of the SARS epidemic in 2003. The three-week tournament (played in five cities) can be a grind, but at least Lilly will be able to lean on Heavey, who proved his mettle in Chicago shortly after they started dating. While Lilly was doing a promotional appearance there, Heavey went to Mia's place—No-mah's place!—to meet Hamm, Foudy and Angela Kelly, Lilly's former college teammate. He knocked and heard a lot of shuffling. "They were totally looking through the peephole," says Heavey. "I could see the shadows under the door."
The women finally let him in, and after making him do a 360 so they could check him out, they hit it off so well that they agreed to have some fun with Lilly. Foudy called her and left a message saying, What's wrong with this guy? Heavey then called—ostensibly from the bathroom—to ask, What's wrong with your friends?