CHICAGO – Kristine Lilly only seemed as if she would play forever.
The last remaining player from the U.S. teams that transformed women's soccer from a fringe college sport into an international phenomenon announced Wednesday that she is retiring at 39. Her 352 appearances is an international record, and she is both the youngest and oldest player to score for the U.S. She is second only to Mia Hamm in both goals scored (130) and assists (105).
"I'm just at the point in my life with my family and career where it was the right time," said Lilly, who returned to national team duty last year after giving birth to daughter Sidney in 2008. "I never knew what the right time was going to feel like, but I finally got there."
Just 16 when she made her U.S. debut against China on Aug. 3, 1987, Lilly joined Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain on the American teams that dominated the game and made it cool for little girls everywhere to play sports. After winning the first Women's World Cup in 1991 and the inaugural Olympic gold medal in '96, the Americans got the rock-star treatment on their way to the 1999 World Cup title.
Stadiums across the U.S. were sold out, kids and their parents lined up hours before the game in hopes of catching a glimpse of the players and the Americans got the kind of media attention usually reserved for Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA. The final at the Rose Bowl, where the Americans defeated China on penalty kicks, drew 90,185 fans — including President Bill Clinton — and remains a record for a women's game.
"Kristine Lilly has been an integral part of our women's soccer history, a great ambassador for the game and a tremendous role model," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "Her accomplishments speak for themselves, but her lasting legacy will be one of a player totally dedicated to the team and doing whatever it took on and off the field to produce success."
Lilly is the only player to play in all five Women's World Cups and was part of three Olympic teams, winning gold in 1996 and 2004. She wasn't part of the gold medal squad at the Beijing Olympics, giving birth to Sidney on July 22, 2008. But she returned to the national team last year and helped the U.S. qualify for this summer's World Cup in Germany.
She played in 10 matches in 2010, starting three, and was one of 18 players coach Pia Sundhage invited to the national team training camp that begins this weekend.
"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 scored her final goal May 22 against longtime rival Germany.
Lilly, who is also retiring from professional soccer, plans to spend time with her family and write a book. She will continue to do soccer camps with Hamm and Tisha Venturini.
"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 said. "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.
"I'm really happy I was able to be a part of this for so long."