Milestone Sets Lilly Far Ahead in Field

Times Staff Writer

Carin Jennings Gabarra was the finest dribbler women's soccer has seen, a player who weaved her way through opponents and to tournament most-valuable-player honors when the United States won the first Women's World Cup in China in 1991.

But she never accomplished what Kristine Lilly will today.

Michelle Akers is widely considered the best all-around player in the history of women's soccer, a two-time world champion, an Olympic gold medal winner and the inspiration behind every U.S. success.

But she never accomplished what Kristine Lilly will today.

Mia Hamm is the world's all-time leading goal scorer and the most recognized figure in international women's soccer. Like Pele, Hamm could be known by a single name alone: Mia.

But she never accomplished what Kristine Lilly will today.

Because today, when she takes the field against Norway at the Four Nations Tournament in Guangzhou, China, Lilly will be making her 300th appearance for the U.S.

No player in history, male or female, has played that many games for their country. Lilly is the first to do so. Just as she was the first to hit the 200 mark in 2000.

It is an extraordinary achievement, 300 international games. To put it in better perspective, the men's all-time appearance leaders are Mexican defender Claudio Suarez and Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea, each with 173 appearances, or caps, as they are known. Galaxy winger Cobi Jones is the U.S. men's leader with 164 games.

For even better perspective, defender Stephanie Lopez, the youngest player in camp when the U.S. women trained at the Home Depot Center this month, is 19 and has one cap.

Just to draw level with Lilly, Lopez would have to play virtually every game for the national team until at least 2024.

"I can't even fathom what she's done," Lopez said. "It's just so amazing. I can just see that experience every time she steps out on the field, where she just has so much confidence."

Lopez said she was 9 when she became aware of Lilly, when the U.S. won the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Now she is playing alongside her.

"It's pretty surreal," Lopez said.

For her part, Lilly doubts anyone will catch her.

"This is my 18th year," she said. "I don't think anyone else is as stupid as I am to keep playing this long.

"It's been good. I still love it. It's harder as you get older, but as long as I can contribute and have a positive role with the team, then I'll play. If I know I'm not contributing what I think is contributing, then that'll be it. But right now I think I am."

Lilly, a 34-year-old midfielder from Wilton, Conn., who makes her home in Boston, seems to have been around forever. In fact, she made her debut against China in China on Aug. 3, 1987, and has rarely missed a game since.

Along the way, Lilly has won two world championships and finished third in two others, won two Olympic gold medals and one silver, and outlasted all of her original teammates.

Gabarra, Akers and Hamm have retired. Lilly is the last player remaining from the victorious 1991 team.

But even she now sees the finish line.

"Four hundred won't ever happen," she said one afternoon last week before the U.S. team left for China.

So how long will she continue?

"Until it doesn't feel right," she said. "Hopefully that will be after the World Cup [in China in 2007]. I want to win that back."

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are several months later, but Lilly said she is not looking that far ahead. She will call it a day in 2007.

Lilly has played for four coaches on the national team: Anson Dorrance, Tony DiCicco, April Heinrichs and Greg Ryan, who took charge a year ago.

Ryan's arrival has in all likelihood extended Lilly's career.

"He's done a good job," she said. "I think what he's done with the team is he's brought the game back to the players. People are happier. They're playing with freedom. There's not stress anywhere. That's something that we were missing a little bit. We had our moments, but not full on. That's been a big plus."

Ryan, a former player, is in awe of Lilly's 300 games.

"Nothing like that exists on the men's side, you just can't last that long," he said.

"And then there's the consistency in her play. She's always been a great player, but every game she just brings such consistency to the team.

"She's getting up there, but you'd never know it."

Lilly is the last of her generation. The rest of the players from the '91 team have retired.

"I look around and my friends are gone," she said.

"But the new players keep me young. I'm realizing they were born when I was just making this team. It's different. They're quiet around me. Sometimes I think I intimidate them."

It's the numbers that do that, and today at Guangdong Olympic Stadium, the number will hit 300.



By the numbers

A look at Kristine Lilly's career with the U.S. women's national soccer team:

24,181 -- Number of minutes Lilly has played for the team.

299 -- Number of games Lilly has played for the U.S., a world appearance record for men and women and representing almost 85% of all 352 U.S. women's matches.

104 -- Number of goals Lilly has scored for the U.S., third all-time behind Mia Hamm's 158 and Michelle Akers' 105 and fifth-best worldwide.

88 -- Number of assists Lilly has for the U.S., second only to Hamm's 144.

39 -- Number of countries Lilly has played against.

30 -- Number of countries that Lilly has scored against.

21 -- Number of countries in which Lilly has played.

18 -- Number of years Lilly has played for the women's national team.

15 -- Number of countries in which Lilly has scored a goal.

2 -- Number of Women's World Cups won (1991 and 1999) and number of Olympic gold medals won (1996 and 2004).

1 -- Lilly's debut for the U.S. came against China in Tianjin, China, on Aug. 3, 1987.

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