By Chris Brookes
On both an individual and team level, former U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Kristine Lilly made an impact on her sport that is so undeniably felt today. A two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup winner, and Olympic gold medalist on two occasions, her name stands alone as her 352 appearances make her the most-capped international soccer player of all-time. Her professional club career was to be spent with the Boston Breakers, and alongside all her achievements in the game, she has never forgotten the team, or indeed the city that would welcome her so warmly.
The U.S. team that lifted the World Cup before a crowd of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl in 1999 is etched in the memories of women’s soccer fans. The achievement has its own rightful place in sporting history and helped ensure that players and supporters would have their first professional league the following year – the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA).
Kristine Lilly (13) and the '99ers'
Lilly was one of three ‘99ers’ to be allocated to the Boston Breakers for the inaugural WUSA season, along with goalkeeper Tracy Ducar and defender Kate Sobrero (now Markgraf). The three-time U.S. Soccer Player of the Year recalls the beginning of her Breakers story.
“Well it was back in 2001 and the National Team split us all up,” Lilly said. “Joe Cummings was general manager of the Breakers back then, and it was an exciting team.
“I moved up to the city and I’ve been lucky enough to call it home ever since.”
A Wilton, Conn. native, Lilly is one of three past players to be inducted into the Breakers’ ‘Pillars of Excellence’. Her banner can be seen at Harvard Stadium for the team’s home games alongside those of two-time Olympic gold medallist and ex U.S. midfielder Angela Hucles and former Germany standout Maren Meinert.
En route to World Cup glory in 1999, the U.S. came from behind twice to beat Germany 3-2 in the quarterfinal, with future Breaker Bettina Wiegmann scoring for the losing team. Meinert played against Lilly in that game and served Boston as co-captain, also being named WUSA MVP in 2003. Wiegmann and Meinert would not be the only Breakers teammates Lilly had already previously taken on in the international arena though.
The U.S. team had an intense rivalry with Norway during the 90s, and it only heightened after each high-profile meeting. Lilly was part of Anson Dorrance’s side to beat the Norwegians in the 1991 World Cup final in China, but they had their revenge in the 1995 tournament’s semifinal. Norway’s celebrations after that victory riled the U.S. players and made the win in the semis of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (before winning Gold) all the sweeter.
As a youngster at the time, the Breakers’ WUSA forward Dagny Mellgren missed those clashes, but she scored the golden goal to defeat the U.S. in the 2000 Olympic final, with a little suspicion of handball, some would say!
Lilly includes the international players as she looks back on some of the Breakers she bonded with in WUSA.
“Myself, Kate Markgraf and Tracy Ducar were great friends. I was good friends with Dagny (Mellgren) Maren (Meinert) and Bettina (Wiegmann) too, which was weird at first because I’d competed against them in the World Cup and Olympics with Norway and Germany.
“Also Heather Aldama, and Kristin Slater, who never got a minute (of competitive play with the Breakers) but always had a smile on her face.”
Jay Hoffman was the first to coach the Breakers, and Lilly scored three and led the league in assists with 11 as the team finished sixth in 2001. It was the same final league place the following season, but Boston had the highest attendances in WUSA, and Lilly was in sparkling form, scoring eight and adding 13 assists.
The aforementioned Slater was a young goalkeeper who joined the team in 2002, but she was behind Ducar and Karina LeBlanc for a starting spot. She was also in the squad as the Breakers, now coached by Pia Sundhage, finished first in the regular season in 2003 before losing out to the Washington Freedom in the playoffs. Now a senior industrial designer at Nestlé Purina, she shared some of her memories of Lilly and the Breakers.
“I think our team was so special because there were so many big personalities,” Slater said. “That usually means the team is prone to dismantling at some point, but luckily for us big personalities didn't translate to big egos.
“Our captains, Kristine Lilly and Maren Meinert, were quieter and so humble and led by doing, and the rest of us with big mouths respected them so much that it offered a perfect balance for team chemistry.
“There are a ton of funny memories, but I'll keep it family-friendly! We used to call Kristine ‘Locker Room Lil’ because she would dance like a mad woman before a game.
“I guarantee if you put on R. Kelly's ‘Ignition’, Lil would still boogie her butt off. Seriously, try it, I dare you ... and make sure you have a camera ready.”
After her debut as a 16-year-old in 1987, Lilly played in five World Cups and three Olympic tournaments during her international career. In addition to the Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy, she currently runs the TeamFirst Soccer Academy with teammates from her days at the University of North Carolina before all their National Team success – Mia Hamm and Tisha Venturini-Hoch.
Hamm, scorer of 158 goals for her country, took on Lilly and the Breakers as she represented the Washington Freedom in WUSA. Washington was the third and final winner of the competition before it folded in 2003, and they defeated Boston in the playoff semifinal on penalties.
Lilly, who scored three and assisted on four goals during the 2003 season, discussed the opponents she looked forward to facing the most back in the WUSA days.
“It would have to be all the U.S. players from our time together on the National Team who I then ended up playing against. I remember one time playing against Mia back when the Breakers played at Nickerson Field. We were both going for the ball and thinking there was no way either of us was going to lose it!”
The course of history can be determined by split-second decisions and for all the doors that the U.S. team of ’99 helped to open for the women’s game, it could have been somewhat different. In extra-time of the final, China’s Fan Yunjie beat Briana Scurry with a header, only for Lilly to clear it off the line in a moment that fans often remind her of to this day.
Lilly went on to score in the shootout to put the U.S. in control at 3-2 after Scurry had saved Liu Ying’s kick. Scurry was pivotal in the success but besides the euphoria they enjoyed together Lilly remembers getting the better of her in stylish fashion for the Breakers.
“There was a night game with Atlanta (Beat), and I scored a goal past Bri (Scurry). I chipped her and she just looked at me; I did that to her in training all the time by the way! The semifinal we lost to Washington (Freedom) on penalty kicks stands out, too. That was heartbreaking.”
A former Tyresö FF player, Lilly returned to Sweden in 2005 with KIF Örebro DFF, playing alongside former Breakers colleague Markgraf and working again with Sundhage. When Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) began play in 2009, she was back to captain the Breakers again after a break from the game while she had been pregnant with first daughter, Sidney.
Kristine Lilly in WPS action against Sky Blue FC
A First Team All-WUSA selection in each of the league’s three seasons, Lilly played every minute of the Breakers’ 2009 WPS campaign, scoring three goals as they finished fifth under Tony DiCicco’s management. The 2010 season was her last, and there was plenty of winning soccer to be enjoyed. Boston finished as runners-up in the regular season, but were ousted at the playoff semifinal stage by Philadelphia Independence.
In her hometown of Wilton, Conn., she had a street named after her (Kristine Lilly Way), and when playing in her home state with the National Team in 2007, the Governor of Connecticut declared it ‘Kristine Lilly Day’ on July 14. She was officially honored by the Breakers in May 2011 with a ceremony at Harvard Stadium during halftime against Philadelphia, with her number 13 jersey retired.
The 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year runner-up returned as assistant coach to Lisa Cole in 2012, helping Boston in its WPSL Elite season. She briefly assisted again in 2013 after Cole’s departure, with former U.S. colleague and current Breakers defender Cat Whitehill, serving as player/coach towards the end of the first year of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
Lilly’s association with the Breakers remains strong, and she has been back at Harvard to take in two home games as a supporter this season. The first of these was the 2-0 win over the Washington Spirit in June, and she was in attendance again for the 4-3 loss to Western New York Flash this month, watching with daughters Sidney and Jordan.
“My schedule’s been crazy so (Washington) was the first game I had the opportunity to get to,” she said. “It was great, and it was so much fun to be there as a fan and bringing my girls along, even though they were running around more than watching it!
“It’s great for these players to be out there and for youngsters to have them to look up to. Boston did a great job getting the win too, so it was a great night.”
The impact on women’s soccer in the States deriving from the 1999 World Cup win was quite something. However, when Lilly and other ‘99ers’ Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, and Brandi Chastain brought the trophy home from China in 1991, there was no such fanfare.
That group Lilly became so closely associated with played for no money when it was starting out and had the cheapest accommodation and longest flights for the ’91 World Cup. In addition to their triumphs on the field, they were everywhere they could possibly be as they tried to promote women’s soccer and make a positive and lasting impression on children who would become the fans and players of the future.
The need for the pros of today to do all they can to promote the game cannot be downplayed, and Lilly urges the players to protect that connection with those who come out to see them. She also shares the advice she would give to herself as a youngster if she had the chance to go back with the knowledge she now has.
“As a teenager, I think it would be the importance of being part of a team, your role within that, and work ethic. I’ve given everything to the game in terms of my work and my time, and in return I got some incredible memories and great teammates.
“When you’re young, you can think it’s about you, but it’s about learning to work with the group, and the tighter the unit, the more successful you can be. It’s important to enjoy it and to do your bit too with things like autographs.
“Some games I’d come off the field, I’d feel really tired and maybe disappointed with the result. Sometimes you don’t feel like signing autographs in that situation, but you have to remember you could be changing someone’s life for the better just by doing that.
“I would say continue to work to be fit and game-ready, but remember also that you’re promoting the game. It’s two-fold because you need the support of the league but it’s about having that balance and seeing the bigger picture. It’s not just about making money, and I think one or two forget that.”
When Lilly became the most-capped player in the world at 152 appearances in May 1998, she perhaps would not have imagined she could add another 200 to that tally. That was exactly what she did, however, and after captaining her country, scoring 130 goals, and coming up with 105 assists, she said goodbye to international soccer as she left the field after the World Cup qualifier with Mexico in November 2010.
As the Breakers approach the conclusion of season two in the NWSL, Lilly hopes fans will continue to come out to the games and support the team she spent so many great times with during her illustrious playing days.
“It’s the right thing to do. Women should have an opportunity to be professional athletes.
“If you have a boy and a girl, would you want the girl not to have the same opportunity? It’s a fun atmosphere at the games, it’s high-level play, and it’s family-friendly.
“The Breakers gave me an opportunity to have a pro career. I was fortunate to be on the National Team, but not everyone had that. Players like Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx played in the league (WUSA) and then went on to play for the National Team and are still there today. The Breakers gave me a home; I love it and I’ve been here ever since.”
Women’s soccer as we see it today owes much to the likes of Lilly, and she was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame this year. The ‘Class of ‘99’ was a team characterised by compassion as much as ability, and as the 2015 World Cup comes into view, there are people who will always remember the likes of Venturini’s backflip against North Korea, Chastain’s winning kick in the final, and of course, Lilly’s priceless goal-line clearance.
DiCicco, her former Breakers and National Team coach said it was a ‘true honor’ to coach Lilly, and although it is easy to hand out praise to just anyone, there are very few who will be forever bonded with women’s soccer quite like her. She continues to help preserve the future of the game, as well as tending to her biggest job of all alongside husband David.
“My kids – I never knew before I was a parent how much time they take up! I also have my TeamFirst Soccer Academy camps with Mia (Hamm) and Tisha (Venturini-Hoch), and we travel around with staff and people we played with. The camaraderie and how much fun we have has been something really positive. I also go get my nails done sometimes, so that’s my life really!”
Chris Brookes is a freelance writer who interned with the Breakers during the 2014 season. He runs the site http://beatsandrhymesfc.com on which he interviews male and female soccer players about music, as well as their teammates, life and career. You can follow him on Twitter: @chris_brookes.