She was the shy one. When Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy were called up to the U.S. women's soccer team as teenagers in 1987, the trio forged a fast friendship, with Foudy and Hamm razzing the quiet Lilly for her homesickness. Two years later, Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers came along, and the Fab Five would form the core of Team USA for the next 15 years.
The shy one would outlast them all. By the time Lilly retired in 2011, at age 39, seven years after the rest of the quintet had hung up the cleats, she was the most capped player in soccer history -- male or female -- with 352 appearances for the national team. Over her 24-year career, Lilly was the only woman to see action in five FIFA Women's World Cups, and she played in three Olympics, winning gold in 1996 and 2004.
Her trademark was a tenacity that crushed opponents. "We were playing Canada one time," remembers Tony DiCicco, coach for the U.S. from 1990-99, "and with 10 or 15 minutes left in the game, a Canadian player just said, 'Go ahead, give her the ball. I'm tired of chasing her!' Kristine just wore players out."
Lilly developed that work ethic early in life, when she would return home from her time with the national team and embark on lengthy runs through the snow and wind in Wilton, Conn. Her hard work motivated Hamm in Virginia and Foudy in southern California to keep pace in their more comfortable climates.
Hamm and Lilly reunited as North Carolina freshmen in 1989. Over the next five years -- Hamm sat out the 1991 season to focus on the World Cup -- the Tar Heels won the national championship every season while losing only one game. In 1991, Lilly won the Hermann Trophy, awarded to the nation's top college soccer player, even though she missed the Final Four to compete in the World Cup.
The 5-foot-4 Lilly got behind defenses regularly enough to net 130 goals (third all time) and tee up 105 assists (second) in international matches. Those numbers are more impressive when you consider that for much of her career, Lilly's job as a flank midfielder in the 3-4-3 formation was to cover more of the field than anyone else.
"She played the position from hell," Foudy says. "That outside midfielder ends up having to track all the way back and get all the way forward. You're constantly doing these 120-yard sprints and logging tons of miles in a game."
Perhaps no game shows the impact of Lilly's two-way play -- and her role on the team -- better than the World Cup final in 1999. Lilly scored the third penalty kick in that game-ending shootout following China's lone miss. Just before, in sudden-death overtime, a Chinese corner kick got past goalie Briana Scurry and would have ended the game … until Lilly came from nowhere to head the ball away from the goal.
"Her reaction was so Lils," recalls Foudy. "We told her, 'You just saved us!' And she goes, 'Yeah, that's my job.'"
-- Elena Bergeron, ESPN The Magazine
Kristine Lilly won the Honda Award as the nation's top college soccer player for the 1991 season. Click here for more on the award.