Kristine Lilly: 'I want them to win'
In a legendary career in which she represented the U.S. national team in four different decades, Kristine Lilly won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. Her 352 international appearances are the most by any player, male or female, in the history of soccer. Lilly first made the U.S. national team in 1987, at age 16, and didn't retire from soccer until earlier this year, at 39. In that span she scored 130 international goals, second only to Mia Hamm, and appeared in five World Cups. A few days before the U.S.-Japan World Cup final, espnW caught up with Lilly, a Connecticut native and Massachusetts resident, to get her thoughts on this year's American team, and on how the game has evolved since she started competing internationally 24 years ago.
Jane McManus: Can you sum up the past 12 years in a few sentences?
Kristine Lilly: (Laughs) I just retired in January, so I've been playing for the U.S. since [the World Cup in 1999]. I was playing professionally with the Boston Breakers with the WPS for two years. And I run my own personal camps, Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy camps, and just finished that up this week in Wilton, Conn. And this past year, Mia Hamm, myself and Tisha Venturini-Hoch started our own camp called Team First Soccer Academy.
JM: And on the personal front?
KL: I got married in 2006, had a baby girl in 2008 and am going to have another one in September.
JM: Does this World Cup team take you back to what you accomplished in '99?
KL: I think what's been so great is the coverage ESPN's been doing has been tremendous. I mean, they have every game on TV, whether it's a U.S. game or not, and every time you turn on "SportsCenter" there's a highlight of the World Cup. And the U.S. is doing great, so that adds to the fire. People want to watch it and witness it, and I think it's been amazing and I hope that they finish it off on Sunday.
JM: Is this team benefiting from what started with the '99 team?
KL: I think it was definitely a process. The process started in '96, when we won a gold medal in the Atlanta Olympics. That started a buzz about the women's team, Mia started to become a household name, and then in '99 we all became household names, and the coverage got better.
JM: Does the quality of games this year help?
KL: They've been amazing. Not just the U.S. games -- the other games have been good. And that's great, that sells the game of soccer even more when you see other teams play that are incredible and they're not the U.S. But the U.S. games, especially the quarterfinal game, I think if you were a new person watching soccer and you saw that game you were definitely hooked.
JM: What have you told these current players?
KL: I just tell them to go after it. I just sent one [text] to the captain, Christie Rampone, saying, "You guys are doing great. There's so much buzz about you guys, keep it up and enjoy it."
JM: How tough is it to watch these games and not be out there?
KL: It's more nerve-wracking to be a fan than to play, to be honest with you, because you really can't do anything about it as a fan. You can just cheer, so the nerves are multiplied for you. I want them to win, I want them to feel what it's like to be a world champion, because it's a pretty incredible feeling. That's really what I can relate to them. If they win, then they know what it feels like.
JM: What do you see for the final against Japan?
KL: You've just got to play your best. Japan's gonna be ready. This is their first World Cup final. I think their team -- out of all the teams -- was pretty consistent throughout the World Cup. They played some great soccer throughout it. I think the U.S. got better with each game, which is positive for us. You've got to bring your A-game. It's the World Cup final. Anything can happen; one mistake could [matter]. One slide to the ball could win the game for you. So every little thing matters, and they've just got to give it their all.
JM: What's changed since your gold?
KL: The women's game has grown, the level's gotten better worldwide. Japan's playing in a final, they've been in all the World Cups, but they've never made it past the quarterfinals [before]. If you look at that, it just shows you how much commitment their country has given them to be better. And I think a lot of the teams are better -- you saw Colombia in their first World Cup; they did a great job, Equatorial Guinea did a great job for their first World Cup. So I think worldwide the level of play is just getting better.
JM: What about the coaching?
KL: [U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage] has made the right decisions so far, so hopefully it continues, and they stick together as a team and a coaching staff and bring home the Cup.