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Nov 23, 2006

Lilly playing better than ever

CARSON, Calif. -- Go ahead, try and figure out what tense applies to Kristine Lilly.

Lilly was a key figure in the greatest day in the history of the United States women's soccer team, saving a ball off the line against China in the final of the 1999 World Cup. She will be a starter for the U.S. in the 2007 World Cup, a spot the team secured with Wednesday's win against Mexico. And she is one of the best players in the world, playing key roles in setting up both U.S. goals against Mexico.

And perhaps that's the best way to describe Lilly's soccer career. She just is.

"I think for me, what I've been proud of in what I've done in my career is I've been pretty consistent," Lilly said this week. "Maybe sometimes I'm too even-keeled, but for the most part, I think I do my job out there and I love what I do."

The most capped player in soccer history, with 318 appearances after Wednesday's game, Lilly debuted with the national team in 1987. At the time, Abby Wambach and Lindsay Tarpley, who started alongside Lilly up front against Mexico, were seven and four years old, respectively. The debut came so long ago that Lilly actually spent as many years as a teammate of April Heinrichs as she did playing for the woman who has the second-most career coaching wins for the team.

Now the captain of Greg Ryan's team, Lilly has played in every major championship event in the history of the women's game, from the inaugural World Cup in 1991 to the Olympics in 2004.

And the 35-year-old is hardly playing out the string. With 12 goals and seven assists in 18 appearances this year, she's in the running for the FIFA Player of the Year award. In the battle between increased mental agility and decreased physical agility that accompanies age, she seems to have reached a point of perfect balance.

Early in Wednesday's game, her guile earned a free kick about 45 yards from Mexico's goal on a foul that probably had more contact from Lilly hitting the ground than from the defender hitting her. Abby Wambach knocked home a loose rebound in the ensuing action, giving the U.S. a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Lilly's physical gifts were on display, beating a Mexican defender off the dribble at midfield and outracing the pursuit toward the box before firing off a cross that Aly Wagner nearly headed in.

Lilly's second-half assist on a Wambach header notwithstanding, those two plays that didn't show up on the scoresheet said as much as anything about her continued excellence.

"I don't know if it's the best," Lilly said when asked if this is the best she's ever played. "This year, whether it's because I'm scoring more goals, there's more hoopla around it, but I feel good. And I think as you get older, too, you don't worry about stuff."

Primarily a midfielder during her first 16 years with the national team, Lilly moved up front two years ago, at the same time Ryan took over a team that faced criticism for stagnant offensive play under Heinrichs. The move also coincided with the retirement of Mia Hamm, who departed as the world's all-time leading goal scorer.

"Closer to the goal, so you're not as tired trying to score," Lilly chuckled about the benefits of her current role. "But it's been fun. I think what's great is I've been scoring some goals, but Abby has, Tarp has, Natasha [Kai] has. We've had goals from a lot of different avenues."

Hamm's last appearance came against Mexico at the Home Depot Center in early December of 2004. Roughly two weeks shy of the two-year anniversary of that game, Lilly was still out there, leading a new generation of players who will get their own chance to carve out a place in the game's history next year in China.

"Now our challenge is not only selling the game of soccer but also to learn the faces," Lilly said. "We lose Mia, Julie [Foudy], Brandi [Chastain] and Joy [Fawcett], you know, the faces that have been behind this team for so long. You've got me, and Kate [Markgraf] and Bri [Scurry] from '99, when it really started to pick up. So now it's just recognizing these new players, because there's so much talent, the personalities are there, they're great people, they want to sell the game."

And for Lilly, it's also a long-deserved opportunity to savor the spotlight.

"For her to come back and not retire, to me, that is one of the most impressive things," Wambach said. "Because you can get lost in names like Mia's and Julie's, and I think Kristine is now coming into her own in the whole leadership side of her game. She is truly one of the best soccer players I have ever, and will ever, play with."

The team that beat Mexico certainly has veteran experience beyond Lilly, even if it's a group still looking to raise its profile with the casual fans who flocked to see the team play in 1999. A youth movement that was already in its infancy when the U.S. lost to Germany in the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup helped produce a roster for Mexico that included nine players with at least 50 caps, even though just four players were 30 or older. But it's also a team trying to blend in a heavy dose of youthful inexperience.

"Competing at this level is different," Lilly said. "A lot of these players, in college they're like the woman, you know, they need to do everything. Here, you don't need to do everything. We need your personality, we need your strengths, but we've got so many people around you. Like I can't do everything, I need people to help me. So I think learning that and just feeling confident. And sometimes that takes them a while."

The leadership and experience Lilly has to offer is all the more important given the improvement of not only elite teams like Germany and Brazil but middle-tier teams like Mexico.

"It's just gotten better," Lilly said of the women's game. "Even from '99, the teams are technically better. The game has grown, it's a little quicker. It's just gotten better, because there is more support. ... When you've got support from your governing body -- financial, yes, but then just support, saying, 'Ok, they're our women's team and we want to back them,' it changes things."

As a disappointing crowd of well under 10,000 on Wednesday proved, this isn't 1999, when the United States beat Mexico 9-0 during the run-up to a World Cup in which it played in front of five crowds of more than 50,000 fans. But that's not about to stop Lilly.

"It's really a challenge to get this new team out there, these new faces, and say, 'Hey, we're still here,'" Lilly said. "Just because the girls are gone, we're still here."

Of course, one of them has been there all along.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.