New England Soccer Today

All good things…

It was a career that any footballer, male or female, would be envious of. And perhaps it’s because of that that many of us are still struggling to grasp the fact that it’s actually over.

Twenty-four seasons of soccer at the highest level. Five World Cups. Four NCAA Championships. Two World Cup Championships. Two Olympic golds. One history-altering header off the line. It’s not superfluous to say that Kristine Lilly achieved it all.

Lilly's 24-year career came to an end on Wednesday. (Photo by CHRIS ADUAMA/

For Lilly, it was an auspicious start. Most teenagers don’t expect to get a call to play for the national team while they’re still in high school. But Lilly did. And since that initial call from Anson Dorrance – who would also coach her and Mia Hamm at the University of North Carolina – it’s been a whirlwind ride worthy of a full-length motion picture.

When the national team won the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, Lilly and her teammates were greeted by a pocketful of family and close friends at the airport. Needless to say, a parade was not on the agenda on that particular day – a day in which very few soccer fans even knew there was a U.S. Women’s National Team.

But on a hot, sunny summer afternoon eight years later, that would change – dramatically. It was the 1999 Women’s World Cup. It was USA-China. It was a sold-out Rose Bowl. It was scoreless after regulation. And it was Lilly’s quick, instinctive header that kept it that way after knocking Fan Yunjie’s shot off the line, and later enabled Brandi Chastain to bare her sports bra to the world minutes later.

Suddenly, the U.S. Women’s National Team was christened America’s Soccer Queens. Parade? Only a cross-country, three-month tour could hope to contain the excitement surrounding the nation’s newest sweethearts. And there was Lil, right in the middle of it, bouncing from city to city, and town to town, promoting the women’s game wherever she and her teammates went.

Building from the momentum of 1999, she helped spearhead professional women’s soccer in the U.S. with the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). When WUSA ceased operations in 2003, she did it again in when Women’s Professional Soccer launched six years later.

And throughout it all, she was the consummate teammate. After Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy, Tiffeny Milbrett, and Michelle Akers all retired, they all remarked how proud they were of her efforts, which were still strong well into her 30s. When younger players began to flood the midfield, she willingly accepted a move to striker. And wouldn’t you know it? She became a bona fide goalscorer.

Lilly personified class, elegance, and unselfishness on the pitch. The team’s success always came before hers. Because it was never about her, but rather, it was about the bigger picture. Her teammates. Her coaches. Her fans. It was a quality that endeared her to nearly everyone who crossed her path.

Lilly was a key player for the U.S. Women's National Team right up until her retirement at age 39. (Photo by CHRIS ADUAMA/

That self-less attitude also carried itself off the pitch, as well. After every national team and Breakers match, a sweaty and tired Lilly patiently signed countless autographs, and politely answered every question that came her way during post-match press conferences.

Lil was the quintessential quiet warrior. She never shot a shampoo commercial. She never ripped off her jersey on national television. And that’s not a criticism of Hamm or Chastain. But rather, it’s a contrast of how little number 13 craved the spotlight, even if she deserved it just as much as some of her more famous teammates.

People praise longevity and durability in athletics, and we worship those who not only perform at a high level, but show up every day, without missing a beat. Hence, we grow to love and admire the likes of Cal Ripken and Brett Favre (although Favre’s image has been tarnished). But, neither athlete can boast a career that not only spanned a quarter century, but a quarter century’s worth of quality performances that spanned the globe.

Although she never won FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year (she finished second to Marta in 2006 at the age of 35), no award or honor could ever adequately acknowledge what she has done for women’s soccer here in the States. She’s done it all. Look at her resume: it’s far easier list what she hasn’t won rather than what she has won.

Kristine Lilly not only did it all, she lived and breathed it all. From the beginning of her national team career at the age of 16, the world’s most capped player ever was instrumental in nearly every success she every experienced on the club and international levels. For an entire generation, Kristine Lilly and soccer were synonymous.

And maybe it’s because of that – because she was a constant, and because she always rose to the occasion without ever seeking the spotlight – that makes her retirement that much harder to grasp.

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