BLOG POST • 01/5/2011

U.S. Soccer Legend Kristine Lilly Retires

The World’s All-Time Leading Cap Winner Hangs Up Boots After Historic 24-Year International Career; 

Lilly Retires as the Youngest and Oldest Player Ever to Score for the U.S. Women’s National Team

CHICAGO (Jan. 5, 2011) – Kristine Lilly, one of the most legendary figures in the history of women’s soccer and holder of the world record for international appearances, has retired.

The 5-foot-4-inch midfielder hangs up her boots at age 39 as perhaps the game’s most accomplished player and certainly one of the most successful and decorated female athletes in U.S. history. She played in five FIFA Women’s World Cups (the only woman to do so) and three Olympic Games, helping the USA win four of those tournaments, finishing second once and third three times. Lilly scored in every world championship tournament she played, except her first, the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup when she was 20 years old. 

She is the only player to appear for the United States in four different decades and is both the youngest and oldest player ever score a goal for the USA. She is also the oldest player ever to earn a cap by more than three years over long-time teammate Joy Fawcett.

“The thing that has been so great for me in making this decision is that I’m in such a good place with my life and soccer,” said Lilly. “When I look back at everything I’ve been a part of, it’s been great. There are no regrets. The opportunities I’ve had to play with so many great players and be a part of so many great moments has been amazing.”

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Lilly, who played most of her career on the left flank but also saw time at forward in the middle of the 2000s, was the second-youngest player ever to debut for the USA when she started against China on Aug. 3, 1987, at the age of 16, 12 days. She scored her first career goal in her second cap 10 days later. She would go on to represent her country 352 times, by far a world record for women or men and a mark possibly never to be equaled. Lilly has been the world’s most capped female player since 1998 when she earned her 152nd cap against Japan on May 21 in Kobe, Japan, passing Norway’s Heidi Stoere.

She finishes her career with 130 international goals, second only to Mia Hamm in U.S. and world history. Her 105 career assists are also second in the U.S. record book to Hamm. 

Lilly was named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year three times during her career with the first award coming in 1993 and, remarkably, two more 12 and 13 years later, coming back-to-back in 2005 and 2006. Lilly finishes as the USA’s all-time leader in Women’s World Cup matches with 30 (along with eight career goals, tied for third all-time). She is tied with four others for most Olympic matches played with 16 while also scoring four times in those games.

Lilly helped inspire several generations of young female soccer players, including many of the players who broke into the national team during the past 10 years. As a member of the “Fab Five” along with Hamm, Julie Foudy, Fawcett and Brandi Chastain, Lilly helped bring women’s soccer into a new era while winning Olympic gold medals and Women’s World Cup titles. That run included the historic 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup held on home soil where the USA defeated China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., in front of 90,185 fans, still the most ever to attend a women’s soccer match. She is the last of the “Fab Five” to retire, outlasting her contemporaries by a full six years.

That game at the Rose Bowl featured two of Lilly’s most memorable career moments when she headed a Chinese shot off the goal line in sudden death overtime and then nailed the USA’s crucial third penalty kick during the dramatic shootout after the Chinese had missed their third attempt.

Lilly also retires from professional club soccer, bidding goodbye to the Boston Breakers of the WPS, for whom she played the last two seasons, including every minute of all 20 games during the inaugural season of 2009. Lilly also played three seasons for the Breakers in the WUSA from 2001-2003, playing 102 total matches for the Breakers. Lilly was an All-Star and/or All-League in all five of her professional club seasons.

“I told myself I would take until the end of the year to make a decision after some time off so I wasn’t just retiring because of the long year and the fact that I was tired,” said Lilly, who finishes as the USA’s all-time leader in minutes played with 28,700. “I’m just at the point in my life with my family and career where it was the right time. I never knew what the right time was going to feel like, but I finally got there.” 

Lilly, who also had two stints in the Swedish First Division in 1994 and 2005, played professional men’s indoor soccer with the Washington Warthogs in the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1995.

“When I sit here and realize that it’s been 23 or 24 years since I started playing at this level, when I think about those numbers it does seem like a really a long journey,” said Lilly. “But the best thing is that I’ve had the opportunity in the last five or 10 years to really appreciate the impact we’ve made not only on the field, but off the field with young people as well and I’m really happy I was able to be a part of this for so long.”

In yet another of her many remarkable feats, Lilly played her entire career free of any major injuries. She served as captain of the USA from 2005-2007 and played for five U.S. Women’s National Team head coaches during her tenure. Lilly stepped away from the game in 2008 to have a daughter Sidney who was born on Lilly’s birthday, July 22, and did not play in the 2008 Olympics. 

Lilly returned to the national team in 2010 for one final run, helping the USA qualify for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. She played in 10 matches last year for the national team, starting three, and scored her final career goal against Germany on May 22 in Cleveland, Ohio.

From 1991 through 2007, Lilly played more than 1,200 minutes every year for the national team except for 2001, when the USA played only 10 matches, and in 2005, when the USA played only nine. The streak ended with her pregnancy in 2008. She also holds the U.S. record for most consecutive starts at 62.

In 2006, she became the first and perhaps the last player to hit 300 caps, earning her 300th against Norway at the Four Nations Tournament in China in a game in which she scored and had an assist. Six years earlier, she became the first player in history, man or woman, to play in 200 career internationals when she played against Canada in the championship of the Nike U.S. Women’s Cup on May 7 in Portland, Ore.

Through the end of 2007 before her pregnancy, Lilly had played in 85 percent of the games the U.S. women had ever played. Even more remarkably, she started 330 of her 352 games, meaning she came off the bench just 22 times in her 24-year career, and seven of those appearances as a sub came in 2010.

During her career Lilly played against 39 different countries, scored against 30 different countries, played in 21 countries and scored in 15 countries.

She was named as a finalist for FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year several times in her career and in 2006 she finished second in the voting.

Lilly won the 1991 Hermann Trophy and Missouri Athletic Club Player of the Year for the University of North Carolina, where she helped lead the Tar Heels to four consecutive NCAA titles. The four-time All-American scored 78 goals with 41 assists in her college career and had her jersey number 15 retired by North Carolina in 1994.

Lilly, who hails from the small town of Wilton, Conn., led Wilton High School to three state titles.

Lilly got married in 2006 to Dave Heavey, a Boston fireman, and plans to stay involved in soccer through camps, clinics and speaking appearances, and will of course continue to run her Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy in her hometown.

“I am looking forward to spending some time with my family, maybe writing a book and doing camps with Mia Hamm and Tisha Venturini,” said Lilly. ”It’s great to team up with old teammates and friends and who have the same philosophies of trying to teach kids soccer and giving back to the game which has given us so much.”

Lilly’s retirement leaves just two players from USA’s 1999 Women’s World Cup Team still active in professional soccer in current U.S. captain Christie Rampone and forward Tiffeny Milbrett.