Ann Killion: Quiet superstar Kristine Lilly exceeded them all - Sports Illustrated

Quiet star Lilly exceeded them all

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Girls often come in predictable groupings -- in literature, pop culture and even in real life. There's the "pretty" one, the "outgoing" one, the "smart" one, the "motherly" one. And then there's the other one, the quiet girl who rounds out the social circle.

Often the quiet one ends up with the biggest role.

The most famous women sports team of all time gave us familiar female characters. The graceful elegance of Mia Hamm, the brash flamboyance of Brandi Chastain, the vocal leadership of Julie Foudy, the maternal glue of Joy Fawcett.

And then there was Kristine Lilly. The other member. Quiet, determined, hard working.

The one who ended up exceeding them all.

Lilly, 39, retired from competitive soccer on Wednesday, the last of the "Fab Five" women who changed sports history to say goodbye. She ends a career that was remarkable not only for its excellence and achievement but also for its ability to exist in the shadows for 24 years.

"She's one of the most amazing athletes of our time," longtime teammate Chastain said. "The fact that I got to witness her up close was a life-altering experience."

In their most famous moment together, Chastain stole the show. Her penalty kick beat China and won the historic 1999 Women's World Cup for the U.S. team. Chastain whipped off her shirt, flashed her sports bra and became an icon.

But it was Lilly who actually saved the game. Earlier, in sudden-death overtime on a Chinese corner kick, Lilly had sprung up at the goal line to head away China's on-target shot. Without that play, Chastain never has her moment. The 1999 World Cup doesn't end the same way. History changes.

"Just doing my job," Lilly said later, with her small smile.

"The most underrated player in the world," is what former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco once said of Lilly.

That never changed during her long career. Lilly is both the youngest player and the oldest player to score for the U.S. She is the most capped player in soccer history -- men or women -- representing her country 352 times. She's the second-leading goal scorer in women's history, behind only Hamm.

She did it all. She just was never the most famous.

"Lil," as her more well-known teammates call her, debuted with the national team in 1987 at age 16, having to ask her parents' permission to travel out of the country. She had grown up in Wilton, Conn., playing on a boys' soccer team that once refused to play in a tournament out of protest because Lilly was barred. She went on to play in college at North Carolina, where she won four national titles.

She was one of the smallest players on the national team, at just 5-foot-4, but perhaps the most indispensable and reliable. She moved easily between the left side of the midfield and forward. She worked hard at all times, on both ends of the field. She played in five World Cups and three Olympics, winning two world championships and two gold medals. She was a founding member of the WUSA, playing with the Boston Breakers. She was a key member of the next-generation league, Women's Professional Soccer, again with Boston.

She always seemed content to melt into the background behind her vocal, outgoing teammates.

"It does seem like a long journey," Lilly said in a statement. "But the best thing is that in the last five or 10 years, I've had the opportunity to really appreciate the impact we've made not only on the field but off the field with young people."

Lilly, who is married to a Boston fireman, gave birth to daughter Sidney in 2008, which caused her to miss the Beijing Olympics. She said in her retirement statement that she was ready to spend time with her family, write a book and continue to do camps with Hamm and Trish Venturini.

"Constantly, from the first day I met her to my last day playing with her, she wanted to be better," Chastain said. "She had a determination to do things the right way."

In their most famous moment together, after burying the penalty kick that put the U.S. ahead of China 3-2, Lilly didn't rip off her shirt or leap up and down. She simply trotted back to her joyful teammates.

Quietly, just doing her job.