High marks for skillful Lilly

August 17, 2004
By Michael Lewis

THESSALONIKI, Greece -- For her compulsory scores, Kristine Lilly's goal on Wednesday night was rated as any other goal in the women's Olympic soccer competition - one point for her team.

But on artistic merit, the U.S. international midfielder got a perfect 10.

Lilly scored a beauty -- a sliding volley from three yards out off a Julie Foudy pass in the 19th minute -- staked the Americans to a 1-0 lead before Australia rallied behind a Joanne Peters goal in the 82nd minute in a rather disappointing 1-1 draw.

Lilly admitted she usually doesn't score those types of spectacular goals. "I'm usually driving the ball into the net," she said.

Usually from long range. But this time Lilly saw an opening much closer to the net.

"I was at the 18 or so when Jules got it," she said. "I saw her look up. We got eye contact. She sent the ball perfectly and I just kept running. When you're so close to the keeper, you think she's going to snag it. It was a great ball to beat her and I got my foot on it."

Lilly doesn't consider herself a big-time goalscorer, yet she has 96 goals in a record of 279 international appearances, the most by a man or a woman on this planet.

Unlike Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett and Foudy, she hasn't announced her retirement from international soccer - at least not yet. So, 300 international appearances certainly is within reach.

"I don't know how far I'm going to continue or what," she said. "I just said I'm not retiring yet. I'm just taking it as it comes. After Olympics, my body could be I can't go on any more. I'm waiting for that moment.

"Some days it does, some days it doesn't. So I'm in a battle. Right now my focus is the Olympics. We have one game ahead of us right now. We win this and we're in the Final Four and closer to our final goal. I want this game bad."

Lilly has been to several high-profile Final Fours over the past 13 years. She has taken home medals for winning two Women's World Cups (1991 and 1999) and finishing third in two others (1995 and 2003) and an Olympic gold (1996) and silver medals (2000).

If the U.S. plays as it did on Tuesday night, getting to the Final Four could be a struggle. The Americans play Japan in the quarterfinals in this city on Friday. They played the Japanese to a 1-1 draw in Louisville, Ky. on June 6.

"For us a tie always feels like a loss," Lilly said about Wednesday's match. "That's not our agenda. We have to step above that.

"Our agenda is to win. So when you set your goals that high, anything below that is disappointing. So we were a little bit. Now we have to step above that.

"Now it's do or die. We have to change our mindset."

After the match U.S. coach April Heinrichs said the team had to be less cautious and more aggressive in the knockout rounds.

"We have to remind each other that we're here for each other and we're going to do this together no matter what happens," Lilly said. "We have to believe in that. When we play our best soccer, we're one of the best teams in the world. I don't think anyone can stop us. We have to put two halves together."

The 33-year-old Lilly is literally the history of the U.S. Women's National Team program. The Wilton, Conn., native has represented her country on 279 occasions (out of a possible 330 international matches), or 84.5 percent of the time (if you're counting, the U.S. has a 220-31-27 when Lilly is in the game).

She has forged a reputation as a never-say-die, hard-working midfielder who will run from one end of the field to the other for the entire 90 minutes.

Lilly might be best known for her header save off the goal line in extra time during the 1999 Women's World Cup final against China.

On a team that has included such markswomen as Michelle Akers, Tiffeny Milbrett and Hamm, among other stars, it has been easy to forget that the 5-4, 126-pound Lilly usually puts one into the back of the net once every three games.

Lilly has been scoring goals for the U.S. women's National Team for 17 years, or since her debut in a 2-0 win over host China on Aug. 3, 1987. She was the second youngest player to don a U.S. women's uniform - 16 years and 12 days old.

After all these years, Lilly still can remember her very first international goal. It was scored in a 1-1 tie in China on Aug. 13, 1987.

"I remember the goal very clearly," she said. "The ball served high to Carin Jennings (now Gabarra). She flicked it out and I kind of caught it on one bounce and I hit it over the keeper's head. I remember running onto to it. Carin grabbed me around the waist and lifted me into the air. So I didn't have to do any celebration."

In those days, the U.S. women wore hand-me downs from the men and always did not travel via first class.

"I remember our shorts were either too big or too small," she said. "Hotels were whatever. When we traveled overseas sometimes we had power, sometimes we didn't. The same thing for hot and cold water. It was nothing we couldn't handle. We're playing for our country and traveling around the world and we're together. It's great that you have people around you that are going through the same thing, the good the bad, helping you get through it."

Regardless of what transpires over the next 10 days, this generation of American soccer players has left a unique legacy to the sport in this country and women's athletes in general.

"This team has done things at the highest level successfully for so long that I think it's the U.S. mentality of us fighting to be the best," Lilly said. "I think the team will be known as a group that went after something that really wasn't there for them and captured it and then captured people's lives, in a sense.

"You also look at a group of players who have been there almost from the start and have built soccer here. I think our team should be known as players who played hard, fought hard and also gave a lot. Not only did we give the fans soccer, but we gave them literally a handshake, an autograph and a belief to young kids that they can possibly be in our shoes someday."

Lilly just about always stresses the team over her individual accomplishments. But I would be remiss to remind everyone that she is only four goals shy of an impressive achievement. After all, only four other women have scored 100 or more international goals.

"To reach 100 - that would be great," she said. "I'm focusing on that's my goal to do it. If you're involved in scoring that means you're making an impact on the team. It would be great to accomplish it. But sometimes it's like OK, now that they're reminding me that I'm almost there it and sometimes it gets a little hard to do to accomplish that."

Right now, No. 96 feels pretty good.

Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com