This record was broken without much fanfare, more than 6,700 miles from her hometown of Wilton, Conn. To be fair, Kristine Lilly still had so much of her career ahead that the breaking of the world’s all-time caps record on May 21, 1998, would be a distant memory by the time she hung up her boots 12 years later.
But on a warm, hazy day in Kobe, Japan, in front of a small crowd – just over 1,000 were on hand at the Universiade Memorial Stadium – Lilly did make history, playing in her 152nd career game to pass Norwegian Heidi Stoere and become the most capped female soccer player in history.
She would never look back.
Astonishingly, she would go on to play exactly 200 more times for the USA, and she finished her career as the most capped player on the planet. With 352 appearances for the national team, it’s a title she may hold forever.
The USA won 2-0 against the hosts in Kobe and fittingly, the then 26-year-old Lilly scored the game-winning goal, notching her 57th-career international tally in the 36th minute. She received a pass from Tisha Venturini and blasted a left-footed shot that swerved away from Japanese goalkeeper Nozomi Yamago, who didn't move as the ball flew into the left side of the net.
"It's fitting that Kristine scored the winning goal," said U.S. head coach Tony DiCicco after the match. "Every player and staff member is proud to be on the same field with her. The record is a special accomplishment and a credit to her magnificent consistency."
Lilly would go on to score 73 more goals in those 200 additional caps and build a career that was essentially a living history of the Women’s National Team program. Lilly’s international career spanned an astounding four decades and by the time she was done, she would be both the youngest and oldest player to ever score for the USA.
How is that even possible?
DiCicco certainly knows. He coached Lilly for more than nine years on the international level, including five years as head coach of the U.S. Women, and also in the professional club enviroment.
“Kristine Lilly changed the women’s game with her incredible abilities and her longevity at the highest level,” said DiCicco, who won the 1996 Olympics and 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup with Lilly as a key player in his lineups. “It would be hard to believe that a player like her comes around more than once in a lifetime. She had the passion, the competitiveness, immense talent, a strong sense of team and the ability to know what the team needed to win and fill that role. I feel so privileged to have coached her with the U.S. Women’s National Team and also with the Boston Breakers.”
As far as Lilly’s memories of her record-breaking game, when you play so many matches (352) in so many countries (39) over so many years (24), it’s not so easy to parcel out the specifics. Still, it was the off-the-field moments that stand out so many years later.
“It is hard to remember that long ago, but I do remember that Tony gave a really nice speech,” said Lilly. “The team presented me a gift, but the best part was a standing ovation from my teammates in the locker room. The Japanese also gave me some flowers before the game, so that was really nice, but in all honesty, I remember the team achievements more than the personal ones.”
Lilly’s team achievements included a remarkable 278 wins against just 35 losses and 39 ties, as well as World Cup titles in 1991 and 1999 and Olympic titles in 1996 and 2004. Alongside her on the field for almost every one of those games was a player who certainly knows what it takes to be world class.
“The greatest thing about Kristine is that she is the most versatile player who ever played,” said Mia Hamm, who herself scored a world record 158 goals in her 275 matches. “Her longevity is a testament to her commitment to the game and how she took care of her body. She also played all over the field and knew the game so well. You could put her anywhere. She could score the winning goal or she could mark the other team’s best player out of the game. She just got it.”
One of the most remarkable statistics from Lilly’s legendary career is that she started in 330 of her 352 games, meaning she came off the bench just 22 times, and seven of those games were in 2010, her final year on the National Team. She played a total of 28,700 minutes, which is over 460 hours wearing the U.S. jersey.
But perhaps the real clue to her longevity was not in her talented legs, but in her heart and in her mind.
Said Hamm: “Kristine could fight through anything mentally. She was just that strong. There wasn’t a more valuable player for us.”
So as U.S. Soccer celebrates its 100th Anniversary, it’s only fitting to celebrate one of the best female players to ever lace up the boots, a 5-foot-4, left-footed, goal scoring, assist dishing (105 for her career), end-to-end running soccer artist who is an inextricable part of women’s soccer history.
Through it all, Lilly remained incredibly humble and always put the team before herself. Even though she hung ’em up three years ago, those qualities haven’t changed.
“It was a different era back then (when she broke the caps record),” said Lilly. “Nowadays a bunch of U.S. players have more than 150 caps, but in looking back, breaking the record is something to be proud of, even if I don’t remember that well! I’ve always said, you can’t achieve anything without your teammates, and I feel like all the players I played with are a part of this history.”