Kristine Lilly, US Legend, Retires Just Six Months Before Women's World Cup
Then suddenly, she announced her retirement on Wednesday afternoon. The most prolific career in international soccer history was over, without much explanation.
"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," Lilly, 39, said in a U.S. Soccer Federation press release.
"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 had a lot to look forward to in 2011: a tournament in China later this month, then the Women's World Cup this summer. It would have been Lilly's sixth.
Why the change of heart? Perhaps she saw the writing on the wall after sitting on the bench for the entirety of the do-or-die consolation match against Costa Rica in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament and the subsequent two-game playoff against Italy. Perhaps she's injured. Or just exhausted. Or even pregnant.
Whatever the reason, she has decided to call time on a sensational career worth celebrating as much for its quality as its quantity.
-- Lilly was capped a world-record 352 times and tallied 130 goals and 105 assists. She scored against 30 of the 39 countries she faced. Lilly has appeared in more than 75% of the games ever played by the U.S. women.
-- Lilly is both the youngest and oldest player to score for the U.S. women's national team. The goals came 23 years apart.
-- She played in five Women's World Cups (a record) and three Olympics, winning a combined four titles. She scored a goal in seven of the eight tournaments (all except the first, the 1991 Women's World Cup).
-- She played in 30 Women's World Cup finals matches.
-- Her best year was 1999, when she tallied 20 goals and eight assists in 28 games. Her most famous play that year, however, was defensive. Her goal-line header against China in the Women's World Cup Final preserved a scoreless tie that would be decided in the Americans' favor on penalty kicks. Lilly gave the U.S. the lead in the shootout, converting the third kick directly after Liu Ailing's miss.
-- She played five seasons with the Boston Breakers (Lilly hails from Connecticut) in the WUSA and WPS. She was an all-star last season at 39 years of age and helped the Breakers to a second place finish in the regular season.
"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 long journey," Lilly told U.S. Soccer.
"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."
Lilly leaves the women's game at a precarious moment. WPS is struggling to survive and has been pared to six clubs, while the national team was forced to qualify for the World Cup via the playoff and has been criticized by none other than Tony DiCicco, Lilly's coach in Boston and the man who led the U.S. to that famous triumph in 1999.
He said in October that American players lacked technical and tactical maturity and that the women were 12 years from another World Cup title.
It's a team that could use Lilly's experience and wisdom.
With her departure, the last link to that glorious past has been severed. It will be up to the likes of Abby Wambach, Heather O'Reilly and Shannon Boxx to carry the torch forward.
It's a tall order. Lilly was a key part of a generation that set the bar very high.
Here's U.S. Soccer's tribute video to Lilly: