SHANGHAI, China -- When you've played in 333 international games, five World Cups and three Olympics, scored 124 international goals and headed away one of the most memorable clearances in women's soccer history to preserve a tie in a World Cup final, the odds are good that the next game isn't going to be the best game you've ever played.
For Kristine Lilly, World Cup success may come down to what she does with the other games.
Lilly's performance in China has been instrumental in the United States finishing first in its group, advancing past England in the quarterfinals and reaching the semifinals for the fifth time in as many World Cup appearances. It was her cross in the second half of the opening game against North Korea that Heather O'Reilly deftly touched into the back of the net for the tying goal and a crucial point. It was her pinpoint pass that Abby Wambach corralled and drilled into the net for the second goal against Sweden, providing the first bit of breathing room the team had enjoyed in China.
And while less easy to quantify, it was surely at least partly through her example that first-time participants like Chalupny, Leslie Osborne, Hope Solo and Stephanie Lopez played key minutes in the first four games with few signs of nerves. While she's neither a shaman nor fire-and-brimstone preacher, she is the team's venerated elder.
But for the United States to get past Brazil on Thursday, let alone attempt to reclaim the World Cup title on Sunday, it still needs its captain to quite literally finish what she started.
Measured for years as much by everything else she did as by the number of balls she put in the opponent's net, Lilly is less a scoreboard luxury than a necessity now.
Since Greg Ryan's ascension to head coach in 2005, Lilly has scored 26 goals in 44 games, or 0.61 goals per game, as a forward. In the 289 games she played for the United States prior to 2005, mostly as a midfielder, she scored 98 goals, or 0.34 goals per game.
Over the past two years, the United States has established itself as the best defensive and most disciplined team in the world. It has not proved on any consistent basis that it is an offensive team on par with either Germany in 2003 or the U.S. team in 1999. Despite the promise of Chalupny, O'Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley and Carli Lloyd, the offense remains reliant on Wambach and Lilly to produce most goals (if Lloyd is not in the lineup against Brazil, Wambach and Lilly will own 25 of the 35 or 36 goals, depending on who starts between O'Reilly and Tarpley, scored this year by the players on the field).
So after Lilly scored two goals in both of the last two World Cups and three goals in the 1995 tournament (she didn't score in the 1991 tournament), it's no surprise people have noticed that she has only one goal through four games in this event. Whether on headers sliding just wide, free kicks grazing the top of the bar on the way over or volleys off by a few feet, the chances were there but the finishing touch was just off.
"I would like to see Kristine get a goal or two in the next game," Wambach said before the quarterfinal against England. "Because she is the inspiration for me on the field and no matter what happens, I want her to feel like this is her tournament. And obviously, she's been playing really well for us and has been captaining our team, but ultimately the finishing, it will come. The finishing for our team always does come."
In classic Lilly fashion, the captain got the goal Wambach hoped she would against England. With her team up two goals in the second half, she never stopped running on a long ball that England keeper Rachel Brown would have fielded without incident nine times out of ten. But when Brown didn't field it cleanly in this instance, instead deflecting the ball over her head, Lilly calmly finished into an open net.
"Goal scorers, it's just like they come when they come," Ryan said as his team prepared to face Brazil. "Who would have thought that Lil would get her first goal on a ball knocked over the top that the goalkeeper batted toward her own goal. But they just fall when they fall, because then it just gives you that little bit of extra confidence when you strike the ball. I think that's all Lil needed was just a little bit, of 'Hey, yeah, some of these are actually going to go in.' But she's been hitting the ball well."
Perhaps the United States can win two more games without Lilly scoring another goal. But if this is truly her tournament, she can't let anyone find out.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.