Lilly blooming in changed role
PHILADELPHIA -- Less than 24 hours after the U.S. opened the Women's World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Sweden at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., the Americans went through a light practice at a local private school in the City of Brotherly Love.
The fallout from the opener certainly cast a spotlight on the faces of three of the squad's newcomers -- defender Cat Reddick, midfielder Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach -- as each player took on a vital role in the match.
Now that Reddick is expected to be a starter in the back since Brandi Chastain is out for the next two games of group play due to a broken bone (the 3rd metatarsal bone) in her right foot, her importance to the side is immense. Her profile should rise, as well, considering the pack of writers and TV cameras surrounding her on Monday morning.
One player who never seems to encounter such a crowd is Kristine Lilly.
Sure, she's a well-known midfielder and is about as highly-respected as anyone to ever play the game. Yet, the world's most-capped player (256) has always had a way of slipping under the radar screen as the story du jour.
So, in a way, it was apropos that FIFA randomly chose her to take a drug test after playing in a match where she scored the first U.S. goal and was named the player of the game, which severely limited her availability to the media.
Not that she would have talked too much about her performance, anyway. Deflecting praise to others and down-playing anything that focuses on her individual impact in a match has always been the way the Wilton, Conn., native operates.
Even after scoring what has to be the prettiest of the six goals she's scored in four World Cups, Lilly refused to rank it among the many highlights she's amassed over a 15-year career with the National Team.
"It was a very exciting moment for me," said Lilly of her left-footed rocket that found the top left corner of the net from 20 yards out. "But because it was big for the team. Not because it was a goal that I scored. I was so psyched, but no more than when Mia got our first goal in '99 (against Denmark). In both instances, it was just so big for our team and it got us going."
The same could be said for the overall performance turned in by the 32-year-old.
Playing in a little bit of a different role than usual as the team's sole playmaker at the top of a midfield triangle, Lilly made coach April Heinrichs look like a genius.
Her penetrating runs on offense and ability to track back on defense caused problems for Sweden all day. It forced the team to bunker back defensively with four and five players to track her along with the feared forward line of Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Cindy Parlow.
"A lot of factors led to us playing a three-midfielder system," explained Heinrichs, whose 20-player squad will now prepare for Thursday's match with Nigeria before heading to Columbus to take on North Korea on Sunday. "And a large part of that had to do with all the different skills Kristine Lilly has on the field. She loves to attack, yet she can play both sides of the ball. She also is always going to serve in good balls, be a playmaker and find a way to make things happen offensively.
"I also know that she's always going to leave it all on the field and do whatever it takes for us to win."
Lilly has been playing for so long that she's played in nearly every midfield and forward position for the National Team.
It was over the past year when she was playing for the Boston Breakers, though, when Heinrichs noticed how well she could play as the lone attacker in the midfield because of the way she backtracked when the team lost the ball. It was something that Breakers coach and Swedish legend Pia Sundhage stressed throughout the season.
"Pia has definitely helped me," said Lilly, who played against Sundhage in the 1991 World Cup as a 20-year-old. "She's big on teaching about defensive responsibilities and getting back after you lose possession."
What also aided Lilly's impact was having two defensive midfielders behind her in Boxx and Julie Foudy. Boxx, in particular, made it possible for Heinrichs to try out such a system with Lilly up top as the attacker.
"Shannon's ability has led to that because of her ball-winning," said the 39-year-old U.S. coach.
"April even came up to me and said that if I win balls back there," said Boxx, "it'll open the field up for Kristine and help us wear down defenses."
Well, yes. In theory. But Lilly's defensive work in the midfield has actually opened Boxx up just as much, which has added a whole dimension to the U.S. attack, as the 26-year-old has scored three goals in three international games. Boxx said that she's been a long admirer of Lilly, and even more now that she's been her teammate the past month.
"She really is just an amazing player," said Boxx, who is coming off an outstanding year for the New York Power. "She's magic on the ball, and she can go all day. She'll also play and work for you all day, too, and all of us, as her teammates, love that."
For Lilly, it doesn't matter where she plays or who she is playing against. It never has been. It's just about doing the right things on the field. The same things she's been doing since she was called up to the National Team right after she turned 16 in 1987.
"Whether I'm on the left, pinched in or up top in the midfield, the goal is still the same. I'm just looking for ways to get the ball to the forwards and to find seams in the defense. If that means crossing it in or making short passes or taking shots -- like on Sunday -- then it's what I'll do to help the team."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.