In Full Bloom

Long overshadowed, 36-year-old Kristine Lilly is now the high-scoring captain of a U.S. team out to win its—and her—third World Cup title
September 09, 2007

SHORTLY BEFORE sheleft Brookline, Mass., for the 2004 Olympics, Kristine Lilly was walking hergolden retriever, Scribner, when the dog suddenly fixated on a guy in front ofa fire station. Or maybe it was the garbage the guy was lugging to the curbthat caught Scribner's nose. Whatever. Bottom line, the dog dragged Lillytoward firefighter David Heavey. They struck up a conversation, during whichHeavey 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 twoabout sports. He had played hockey and golf at UConn. He lived and died withthe Boston Red Sox. He worked in a firehouse—he'd seen his share of ESPN. Butlike most sports fans, his familiarity with women's soccer was pretty muchlimited to Mia Hamm (married to No-mah!), Julie Foudy (all over ESPN as a WorldCup commentator) and Brandi Chastain (something about a sports bra). Lilly toldhim 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 ofyou," but a few weeks later she was back, showing off the gold she'd earnedthrough a typical Lilly performance. She played 579 of 600 minutes in sixOlympic matches, scored in two one-goal victories and a 1-1 tie, set up thedecisive goal in the final with a perfectly taken corner kick—and wascompletely overshadowed by the swan songs of Hamm and Foudy, as well as by theemergence of forward Abby Wambach. That medal paid bigger dividends for Lilly,though. She and Heavey were married last October.

"Kristinenever got the recognition she deserved when we were all playing," saysFoudy. "The quieter types don't get the attention." That's about tochange. Lilly—who just turned 36—is now the face of the squad favored to winthe fifth Women's World Cup, which starts next week in China. Coach Greg Ryanhas not only named her captain but also moved her from the midfield to anattacking spot.

Wife, leader,striker: Welcome to the New Adventures of Old Kristine.

LILLY has beenwith the national team almost since there's been a national team. She playedher first match, as a 16-year-old, on Aug. 3, 1987, against China. It was the16th game the American women had ever played. She has now made 331international appearances, giving her 56 more caps than any other player, manor woman. For the bulk of her career Lilly has been the most active left wingerthis side of Sean Penn. Former coach Tony DiCicco, who led the U.S. to the 1999World Cup title, remembers one game in which a Canadian player finally threwher hands up and said, "Just go ahead and pass it to her. I'm sick ofchasing her around."

Ryan moved Lillyup top—where she played regularly at North Carolina and sporadically with thenational team—to get her more touches, but the change has the added benefit ofsaving her legs. "Forwards, all they do is sprint and walk. Midfielders dothe 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. Whenyou're young you feel like you can run around, and you should."

Lilly catchesplenty of grief for being 36. Her teammates call her Grandma and Old Lady, andthey really like pointing out that when she earned her first cap, defenderStephanie Lopez was one year old. But Lilly's probably in better shape than anyof them. "She's a specimen," says defender Cat Whitehill. "Shelooks like she could run for days. Here I am 25, sometimes my face is droopyand I have bags under my eyes, and Lil is always ready for something. She isfit, she is trim, and she's playing some of the best soccer of herlife."

That's sayingsomething, because Lilly has been one of the game's most clutch performerssince the late Reagan years. Her biggest play came in the 1999 World Cup finalwhen she cleared a Chinese shot off the line in sudden death, preserving thescoreless tie and sending the game to a shootout, in which she calmly buriedher penalty kick. (A couple of minutes later Chastain drilled her PK and doffedher jersey, and Lilly's heroics were immediately forgotten.) Now, though, she'sscoring 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 in32 games over the past two years—during which the U.S. has gone 28-0-4—and her126 goals are second in national team history to Hamm's 158.

The move tocaptain wasn't quite as natural. She assumed the armband from Foudy, who neverhad trouble telling anyone what was on her mind. Lilly, on the other hand, is alead-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 reallymeans."

DESPITE UNDERGOINGa massive overhaul—10 of the 21 players on the World Cup roster were not on theteam during the '04 -Olympics—the U.S. will be the team to beat in China, whichis hosting the Cup after being forced to give it up because of the SARSepidemic in 2003. The three-week tournament (played in five cities) can be agrind, but at least Lilly will be able to lean on Heavey, who proved his mettlein Chicago shortly after they started dating. While Lilly was doing apromotional appearance there, Heavey went to Mia's place—No-mah's place!—tomeet Hamm, Foudy and Angela Kelly, Lilly's former college teammate. He knockedand heard a lot of shuffling. "They were totally looking through thepeephole," says Heavey. "I could see the shadows under thedoor."

The women finallylet him in, and after making him do a 360 so they could check him out, they hitit off so well that they agreed to have some fun with Lilly. Foudy called herand left a message saying, What's wrong with this guy? Heavey thencalled—ostensibly from the bathroom—to ask, What's wrong with your friends?

Lilly showed up,relieved to discover that her pals didn't really despise Heavey. While she islooking forward to life with him (and Scribner), she's not ready to call it acareer just yet—not with another major event, the 2008 Olympics, on thehorizon. "I've always loved the game of soccer," says Lilly. "Now Ihave two things I love. Together."

EXTRA

Heads Up
More on the Women's World Cup, including postgame analysis from MarkBechtel.

ONLY AT SI.COM

A Guide to the Cup

Which games and players to watch, and which team willwin

GROUP OF DEATH

The U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world, but thistournament isn't March Madness: Top seeds aren't guaranteed an early walkoveror two. The Americans' first opponent, No. 5 North Korea, is tough to scoutbecause it plays infrequently, but U.S. coach Greg Ryan has seen enough to knowthat it will be "the most mobile team we've ever played." The U.S. thenfaces No. 3 Sweden, which in Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson has two ofthe best goal scorers in the tournament. And the Yanks' final opponent, No. 24Nigeria, is the most athletic outfit in the 16-team field, Ryan says, "interms of speed and physical power."

GAMES TO WATCH

Argentina vs. England, Sept. 17 These countries justdon't like each other. They'll meet in the final match of Group A—and a spot inthe knockout round could be on the line.

Brazil vs. China, Sept. 15 Brazil gave the U.S. all itcould handle at the 2004 Olympics—and then didn't play for two years. Theeffect of the layoff was evident: The Brazilians and striker Cristianestruggled in qualifying. China, a 1999 Cup finalist that has had troubledeveloping talent since, will likely need a win or a tie against Brazil toadvance.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Renate Lingor, midfielder, Germany The playmaker, whofinished third in the 2006 FIFA Player of the Year voting, set up the winninggoals in the semis and the final in 2003.

Solveig Gulbrandsen, midfielder, Norway After taking ayear off to care for her newborn son, she returned this summer—and had threegoals in No. 4 Norway's first two Euro qualifying games.

PREDICTIONS

First round (top two teams advance)

Group A: Germany (9 points), England (4), Japan (2),Argentina (1)

Group B: U.S. (7), Sweden (5), North Korea (4), Nigeria(0)

Group C: Norway (9), Canada (6), Australia (1), Ghana(1)

Group D: Denmark (5), Brazil (5), China (5), NewZealand (0)

QUARTERFINALS

Germany 2, Sweden 1

U.S. 3, England 0

Brazil 2, Norway 2 (Brazil wins on PKs)

Denmark 3, Canada 1

SEMIFINALS

Germany 3, Brazil 2

U.S. 3, Denmark 1

FINAL

U.S. 2, Germany 1

PHOTOPhotograph by Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBEST FEET FORWARD By moving from midfield to striker Lilly has filled the void left by Hamm, banging in 22 goals in 32 matches. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER PHOTOSTEVEN GOVERNO/AP (SVENSSON)Svensson PHOTOJEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (CRISTIANE)Cristiane PHOTOLARS BARON/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGES (LINGOR)Lingor

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)