Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported the number of goals Kristine Lilly has scored in her career. It is 126. This version has been corrected.
U.S. Women Still Have One Link to the Past
Friday, September 7, 2007
China's economic awakening has unfolded before Kristine Lilly's eyes.
Automobiles nudging bicycles to the curb. Cranes obscuring historic landmarks. Fast-food joints extinguishing family shops.
"You see new buildings going up, construction equipment everywhere," said Lilly, team captain of the U.S. women's national soccer team. "And there are more people. It's such a different country now."
Twenty years have passed since Lilly's maiden trip to China, a two-game adventure that provided a peek into an unknown land and launched a career that, despite extraordinary milestones, has remained largely in the shadows of her celebrated former teammates. She has returned seven times since -- for the U.S. team's first world championship in 1991, for four-nation tournaments and friendlies, and, this month, for her record-setting fifth Women's World Cup.
The Americans, top-ranked in the world and unbeaten in regulation play for almost three years, will begin their quest for a third title Tuesday (5 a.m. Eastern time) against North Korea in a Group B first-round match in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu.
Lilly, 36, is the last active player from a generation of female soccer stars that rocketed into the public eye in the 1990s and, in its final major triumph, won Olympic gold in Greece three years ago. These days, Mia Hamm is caring for twins with her baseball-star husband, Nomar Garciaparra. Julie Foudy has ventured into the broadcasting business, and Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett are raising families.
They have moved on. Lilly has marched on.
"I wasn't ready to stop," Lilly said last month. "I didn't feel I was at a point where I felt comfortable saying I wanted to leave the game. It would've been nice for all of us to go out at the same time, but it just wasn't there for me."
So she has endured -- for a world-record 331 international matches, 126 goals and 100 assists, and for a familiar destination, China, where she will join male counterparts Antonio Carbajal of Mexico (1950-66) and Lothar Matthaeus of Germany (1982-1998) as the only players to appear in five World Cups.
Lilly is as important to the U.S. team as she was a decade ago, only now she, not Hamm or Foudy or Chastain, is the player revered by the young players. She also has changed positions, moving from the left side of the midfield, where she exploited her speed and cunning to generate scoring opportunities, to the left side of a three-player forward line.
Her teammates swear Lilly has not lost a step and, by combining physical excellence with unrivaled experience, has become a more rounded player.
"She can play defense, she can play midfield, she can play forward, she can play captain, she can play best friend, she can play hard friend," said striker Abby Wambach, 27, Lilly's teammate for five years. "She has the capability to do anything you ask her, and that's a hard thing to find in a player and in a person."