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Long road is about to come full circle

September 09, 2007|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

What might be the final soccer campaign for Kristine Lilly could complete the circle in such a tidy, theatrical way this fall in China. Her first international trip with the U.S. women's national team was to China, and not only did the then-15-year-old have to go out and get a passport, but permission from Mom and Dad.

Now she is back in China with a husband and considerably more baggage, but of the very best kind -- two World Cups, two Olympic gold medals, 126 goals and a record 331 caps.

The 36-year-old Lilly, who on Tuesday will be in Chengdu for the team's opening World Cup match, is in a unique position, having started every game the American women have ever played at the World Cup or Olympic level.

She is the glue of U.S. women's soccer, the lone figure remaining from the Michelle Akers era as well as the greatest generation, one of luminaries Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain, and now is shaping the feet, hearts and minds of the current U.S. squad.

Starting at the beginning, the great leap forward for the shy teenager, the China initiation, and the early help of her mentor, Carin Gabarra:

"She was like my big sister. I got invited to China when I was 15. I was like, well, I have to ask my parents. I can't make that decision. I go home and they're like, 'All right.' I was scared. I was very scared. I didn't know anyone. I had just met Joy and Julie, briefly. We really didn't know each other. I knew Mia.

"They took you under their wing. But when you got on the field you had to prove yourself every time. They didn't coddle you. It was frustrating. It was hard. Then you would come off and they're like, 'All right.' Then you earned their respect. That's the thing about this team. You have to earn their respect. You can't expect, 'You're great. You're here.' You've got to show you belong."

Her recollections of that first game, the first half spent on the bench:

"We played China and I was watching, 'Oh my God. What am I doing here?' These girls are good. And I hadn't seen women's soccer before at the time they invited me. I didn't know what level -- I had no idea. I went in the second half and scored a goal. Carin laid it off for me and it was like a volley shot. I was so excited. It just made you feel like, 'I scored a goal.' Just like a defender making a great stop. It made me think, 'Maybe I belong here.' We'll see what I have to do to stay here."

Traveling life now versus the not-so-ideal living conditions on the road in the early days:

"The hotels are nicer. Haiti was horrible, would lose power in the middle of the day or late afternoon. That was interesting. In 1990, I remember the lights would go out. And we were studying by candlelight. We laughed. It became a story. We took showers in the pool.

"Back then we didn't bring much food with us. We were eating bread a lot."

Whether her game-saving clearance, a goal-line header, in overtime against China in the 1999 World Cup final in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl crowd would become, and be remembered as, the defining moment of her career:

"I don't think so. I hope it doesn't. I hope that I contributed more. I hope people remember when we played we worked our butts off. When I think of Mia and Michelle and Julie . . . I don't think about how Mia scored this goal. I just remember their presence. How they would capture a team, how they would take a game over. And their legacy will live on. And it's more than a moment."

On how the HBO special "Dare to Dream," about the greatest generation of U.S. women soccer players, provided a distinctive off-field assist:

"It was one of the greatest things to me because that tells our story. They told the story we've been telling, and now we don't have to do it anymore [laughs].

"We don't have to tell it now. With this group, we're starting a new story, a new chapter. They know how great the past teams were and they want to continue that legacy. I still get nervous watching the PKs [penalty kicks]. And I know what happens. I know Brandi scores. But I'm nervous."

The close friends and teammates became even closer when they lived together for a year in Southern California when training for the last stand as a group for the Olympics in Athens in 2004:

"Me, Julie, Brandi and Mia -- the four of us lived together and it was a great year. It was good. We were busy doing stuff. Jules was always on the phone or doing e-mail. Brandi was doing her sewing. Mia and I would kind of just chill. Everyone had their own little thing.

"But we'd eat together at night. Jules and I would be prep cooks. Mia and Brandi would be cooking. It was like sisters because you didn't have to talk if you didn't want to. You'd have someone to talk to or watch TV together or bounce things off of. It was very comfortable."

Immediate impressions after winning the gold-medal game against Brazil, in overtime, in Athens:

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