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Soccer Legend Kristine Lilly Weighs In: What Will It Take For The U.S. To Win The FIFA Women’s World Cup?

By Peggy Shinn | May 26, 2015, 6:46 p.m. (ET)

Midfielder Kristine Lilly fires a shot toward the goal at the Lincoln Financial Field during the opening round of the FIFA Women's 2003 World Cup on Sept. 25, 20013 in Philadelphia. 

RUTLAND, Vt. -- Kristine Lilly learned many things during her 23 years on the U.S. women’s soccer team.

First, orange slices at half-time are still a favorite part of the game for Lilly, who played in 352 international matches, the most of any soccer player in the history of the sport.

“I used to see how many I could eat,” she said of the halftime snack during a presentation to local soccer players at the Paramount Theater in Rutland, Vermont, last week.

Second, a team is stronger when its members stick together on and off the field. She learned this important fact while playing on five world cup and three Olympic teams — winning the world cup title in 1991 and 1999 and Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004.

Kristine Lilly celebrates after scoring during the Women's World Cup quarterfinal match between the USA and England at Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium Sept. 22, 2007 in Tianjin, China. 

She retired in January 2011 and is now the volunteer assistant coach at the University of Texas in Austin.

“Those early teams, we cared about each other,” Lilly said before the presentation. “It wasn’t just about winning. We cared about each other off the field as well. There’s an investment not just in the game but in each other. We went through people getting married, the passing of people whom they loved, kids. We were like a family.”

Her “family” included soccer legends Mia Hamm and Tisha Venturini Hoch, with whom she developed TeamFirst Soccer Academy (a program for young players), Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett, to name a few. She also played with Christie Rampone, the only current soccer player who was on the 1999 women’s national team.

Although the U.S. women’s world cup victory in 1999 was immortalized by the photo of Brandi Chastain celebrating on her knees after scoring the winning penalty kick against China, it was Lilly’s save earlier in the game that kept the U.S. alive. With the game locked in a score-less tie in overtime, Lilly headed a ball away from the U.S. goal just before it crossed the line. Had China scored, there would have been no penalty kicks.

When asked what made the 1999 team so strong, Lilly credited the talent of her teammates. But also, everyone knew their roles, from the starters to the reserve players to the coaches and staff members.

“If the reserves had a chance to play, they were ready,” explained Lilly. “They weren’t complaining on the bench. They were like, ‘OK, if I’m not playing, I’m making sure another player is ready. Or I’m making sure she’s got the energy. I’ve got her back.’ It was a really cool feeling amongst the team. We didn’t get treated any different because we were starters.”

When asked if the 2015 U.S. team that will play in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup is similar, Lilly said that she has not been directly involved with the team. But she was impressed with how the team played its latest Send-Off Series match earlier this month. The U.S. defeated Mexico, 5-1.

“They seem to have that energy and unity that I haven’t seen in awhile,” Lilly commented.

Lilly also likes the mix of veterans and world cup rookies. On the 23-woman roster playing in Canada next month, seven will be making their world cup debuts (and one of those seven, Sydney Leroux, played on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team, which beat Japan for the gold medal; and two were alternates on that team). Leroux, a forward, scored two of Team USA’s five goals against Mexico in Sunday’s warm-up game.

One of those alternates, Christen Press, is also playing great, said Lilly. A 26-year-old forward, Press has started in seven of the eight matches the U.S. has played in 2015 and scored a goal in Team USA’s win over France, 2-0, in the final of the Algarve Cup in March. Defender Julie Johnston, also making her world cup debut, scored the other goal.

Other players to watch in the upcoming world cup will be Becky Sauerbrunn, a veteran of the 2011 U.S. women’s world cup team and the 2012 Olympic team, who stepped into the defensive line for Rampone after she suffered a back injury in January. Rampone finally saw action again during the second half of the game against Mexico.

Who else will be a “stud-ette” at the world cup next month?

“Obviously, Abby (Wambach) can cause some trouble when she’s in there,” said Lilly. “Abby is someone you always have to worry about on the field. Alex Morgan, hopefully she’s healthy and can cause havoc.”

Morgan missed parts of the 2013 and 2014 seasons with an ankle injury but has started in seven of the eight games so far this year.

Forward Kristine Lilly #13 moves the ball against Sweden during the FIFA Women's World Cup match at the Chengdu Sports Center Stadium on Sept. 14, 2007 in Chengdu, China. 

But Lilly pointed out that there are more than forwards on the field.

“We don’t need one (standout), we need 11 of them,” she added. “Whoever’s on the field needs to come together and make it happen because it’s going to take a lot to win this world cup.”

Group play for the U.S. team starts on June 8, when the Americans face Australia. Four days later, they will play Sweden, probably the toughest team in their group. On June 16, they take on Nigeria, the most unpredictable team in the group, said Lilly.

If the U.S. wins its group, the team will likely face Germany, currently ranked No. 1 in FIFA standings. Other strong teams right now are France, which has steadily risen through the rankings and made the final of the Algarve Cup in March. The 2011 world cup champion, Japan, is also still in there, with superstar Homare Sawa back on the world cup roster.

How should the U.S. play these strong teams? Lilly would like to see the American women bring the same energy that they had against Mexico to world cup action.

“Attacking teams, I think that’s one of the strengths of the U.S.,” she said.

Lilly called the U.S. women’s final pass and final shot “a little off right now.” But with one more warm-up game before the world cup, that timing should come.

She encouraged every girl in the audience to send a note or email to the U.S. women playing in the upcoming world cup.

“It’s one of the great feelings to know that you have a whole country backing you,” she said.

“If you take time to support people, great things can happen,” she added. “That’s what happened on the teams I played on in ’96, ’99 and 2004, and hopefully this summer. This team’s got so much talent.”

Rampone is the only player on the team who has tasted world cup victory, with the U.S. finishing third in 2003 and 2007, and second in 2011.

As Lilly stated, “We want to change that this summer.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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