What "it" is, perhaps, is best explained by Deaton Bell, a 1990 UNC alum and former producer for Worldwide Soccer on ESPN. "My memory of her of course is that signature play that she had in the 1999 World Cup Final," he explains. "The game is in extra time, and China has Brianna Scurry beaten on a header off a corner kick and Lilly is standing there on the back post and heads it off the line. She saved the game for the United States and they would go on to win the game in penalties."
The moment is of course a shared memory for any fan of women's soccer, but for Bell it is the way Lilly explained it later that best defines who she is. "Afterwards we're standing in the 'mixed zone' and the question is asked of her, 'Can you describe the play because it saved the game?' Lilly then, in her usual modest self says, 'Well the ball came right at me. Of course I headed it away. I was where I was supposed to be and I did my job.' And that is the approach that she always takes into a game. She'll do whatever it takes to get the job done. She won't be remembered as the most spectacular player, but that play was certainly spectacular because it was headed towards the net."
"It happened so quickly in the game," Lilly recalls, "and there was so much more that happened afterwards that I kind of forgot about it. I guess that is why I was like 'That's where I was supposed to be. That's my job.' When I look back at it though I'm like 'Thank God.'"
It was a split-second. A single moment in time, yet it is the one moment nearly everyone points to when discussing her legacy; a legacy defined so much by time.
The first line of every Kristine Lilly biography will include some varying spin on her amazing longevity as one of the world's best women's soccer players—and it should. Still, somehow focusing on her seemingly secret discovery of a futbol fountain of youth obscures the easy conclusion that Lilly, simply put, is one of the greatest players her sport has ever seen.
Clearly, the fact that she was hand-picked to join Team USA while at Wilton High School by her future coach at UNC, Anson Dorrance, is an extraordinary accomplishment. That precociousness was just the beginning of four decades of instrumental participation on the National Team. Consider that her National Team participation began when Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office, that she broke the record for most caps with Team USA as Bill Clinton was in charge and continues today to play on the squad comprised of the best America has to offer and it gives her career a Forrest Gump like quality. She has been in the right place at the right time to see nearly every important moment in the development of the sport of women's soccer in America.
"Obviously, in the history of our women's team she is such a key component," Bell states. "She saw the beginning of it. She came in as a teenager and has been a part of it right up through today and their greatest triumph she was on the field for. She is in the conversation of all-time great two-way players who could defend and certainly go forward."
With obvious tangible accomplishments to point to like two Olympic gold medals, four college national championships as a Tar Heel and the memorable 1999 World Cup win, it is that longevity that fills Lilly with the most pride. "Being a part of so many years with the National Team, but really having a starting role," she stresses. "For over 20 years I was a starter on the US team. Now I have a bit of a different role. That longevity though is something I am really proud of."
If a writer is lucky enough to profile several UNC athletes, a familiar thread emerges when discussing the selection of North Carolina as a college choice. In this regard Lilly is no different. "For some reason it just felt right," she says. "It felt like home. Of course playing for Anson and playing with Mia was huge, that familiarity, but Chapel Hill is just such a beautiful place. I always loved fall; soccer season in general after September. After August and September when the heat subsided it was just beautiful down there and fall always reminds me of soccer so that was a big part of it. I also really remember the people. Some of my best friends I met down there."
The success Lilly's squads experienced during her time at UNC remains one of the great runs in NCAA history, regardless of sport. In fact, the records are so remarkable that somehow simplicity says it best. As a Tar Heel Lilly won four national titles. During that span she lost but a single game.
That era of unalloyed brilliance was part of a growing foundation for a program that shunned the idea of pressure, but seemed to treat championships as a family heirloom; something inherited, treasured and passed on to the next generations of players. "It was great," Lilly explains, "and I think every player that goes through Carolina has this feeling that they want to continue that tradition and do everything it takes to be the best because of the players before them. It's not like there is pressure, but it's like you don't want to let the people before you down. They've done the work and they've won the championships and I think that is just sort of the feeling you get and Anson sort of instills that it in you that this is a place of tradition where these things happen."
Following a Gold Medal performance in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, several of Lilly's contemporaries including fellow Tar Heel Mia Hamm embarked on what was termed a "farewell tour." The generation of players that brought Team USA gold medals and a World Cup title were beginning to step away from the game and Lilly wondered if at age 33 she should join them.
"I remember that they all knew this was it for them and I thought, 'Should this be it for me?'" Lilly remembers. "I kind of asked that question. I realized that it was not for me but I thought, 'Do I do this, just to go out with them?' And I knew that if I did I would regret it a bit because I just wasn't ready to hang it up yet. Obviously, still playing now shows that where I was in my life wasn't where they were and I didn't think it would be right to do it just to do it."
So Lilly pushed on. She still found time to get married and have a daughter, Sydney, with whom she shares a birthday, but still the idea that somehow lacing up cleats and changing diapers couldn't survive at once didn't fit into her Carolina blue collar ethos. "You make some time and you organize your time," she says. "I got back into training and I am making a difference still on the field."
In March of 2010, Lilly returned to the US National Team following a two-year absence. It is her fourth decade with the team and in the run-up to the 2011 Women's World Cup, Lilly sees no end in sight. She continues to pull double duty with club (the Boston Breakers) and country, and her role as a crowd favorite makes her an easy sell for Women's Professional Soccer.
"Kristine Lilly is THE player in WPS that connects today's stars to the foundation and roots of the game in the 1990s when women's soccer landed on the map with the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup," Rob Penner, Director of Communication for WPS says. "Her accomplishments and success at all levels of the game speak for themselves, but it's her character, hard work and leadership that ultimately have made her such an incredible role model and earned her such respect from players and sports fans alike over the years."
Having now begun her fourth decade with the Women's National Team, the inevitable has happened—the girls that were once her fans are now her teammates. The next link on the chain as the game marches forward.
Still, the next generation of stars, especially those with roots in Chapel Hill, are quick to point out the impact of Kristine Lilly and her tireless pursuit of the dream of playing soccer for the pure joy of the game.
"Kristine Lilly has been a role model of mine for many years," says Heather O'Reilly, a former Tar Heel and current member of FC Sky Blue. "Not only when I was a fan, but since I was a teammate of hers on the US team. She embodies what the US National team has always been about—passion, selflessness, and an incredible competitive spirit. Lil is always trying to help me as a player. Since we play a the same position, we always bounce ideas off each other and help each other be our personal bests. I will never forget her guidance."
"Kristine Lilly was always the midfielder I looked at to model my game after," says Kacey White, another Tar Heel playing for FC Sky Blue. "It was two-fold. Not only did she start for the national team, but had starred at Carolina, which was my dream destination for college soccer. Add that to her skill and constant work rate, and I was given a tangible model of excellence for myself growing up."
Another midfielder with the National Team, former Tar Heel Yael Averbuch, is the living embodiment of the seeds that the 1999 team sewed. "In fifth grade I remember painting a photo that I tore out of a magazine—it was of Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm posed in their Tar Heel uniforms on a goal post," Averbuch says. "Earlier this year Lil, as we call her, subbed in for me in a US National Team game against Mexico. This women's soccer legend, once merely a household name and idol from afar, is now my teammate and opponent. To me, she represents my childhood dream, and the spirit of women's soccer in the US."
Lilly is a part of the core group of women who helped fund a dream for girls across America, a group that wanted to pursue soccer as something more than a game, and that is a source of lasting joy for the player who has more caps for her country than any other player—man or woman—on any team in any country around the world.
"I love that," Lilly says. "One of the biggest things that I enjoy about my career is just being a role model for young people. If you have the ability to reach young people, I think it is amazing. I feel honored that people would put a poster of me up on their walls. That is a cool thing. That means you are doing something right and not just playing for yourself but playing for some other people out there."