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Lilly returns for U.S. against China

The final leg of the "Achieve Your Gold" tour, which kicks off Dec. 13 at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California, will celebrate the long-awaited reunion of a legend and two budding young stars with the U.S. women's national team.

Not just known as the world's all-time leader in caps at 340 anymore, Kristine Lilly returns to the U.S. team with the title of "Mom" after a 14-month hiatus. Lilly, who missed the 2008 Olympics in China, is eager to get back to work, with the inaugural WPS season opener on the horizon in 2009.

"I'm excited to get back into it. I've been running and lifting -- I feel pretty strong," said Lilly, via a phone call. "These last games in the post-Olympic tour are a celebration of the team's accomplishments. I'm glad I can be a part of it. I'm looking forward to getting some playing time, and getting comfortable on the field again."

On the other end of the spectrum, college seniors Lauren Cheney of UCLA and Amy Rodriguez of USC will also have to switch gears, as both return to the U.S. Soccer program fresh off NCAA College Cup campaigns.

"I'm looking forward to going back," said Rodriguez. "I'm in the middle of finals, finishing up classes, but I'm excited to get started again with the national team in the next couple weeks. It was hard to come back from China when I had taken last semester off from school and came back for this semester -- I've been out of school for seven, eight, nine months, and to jump into senior year, it's a little bit tough."

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. China
Dec. 13
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
9 p.m. ET

U.S. vs. China
Nov. 17
Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
7:30 p.m. ET

Even more so for Rodriguez, the return will be bittersweet: Her team, the reigning NCAA champions, made an early exit as Cheney's UCLA squad dropped USC 1-0 in the third round -- returning the favor from 2007, when the Trojans eliminated the Bruins in the College Cup semifinals. No. 1 seed UCLA just bowed out of the race against North Carolina, and Cheney just missed the chance to take home Olympic gold and a college championship in the same year -- a feat last accomplished in 1996 by Cindy Parlow.

"Of course I'm still looking forward to seeing Lauren, and all the other girls I've played with," said Rodriguez.

Finishing up the tail end of a three-year World Cup and Olympic cycle, the U.S. women's soccer team looks ahead to a bright future. In fact, head coach Pia Sundhage is in Chile right now for the U-20 2008 Women's World Cup, scouting young spark plugs on the U.S. youth squad whom she might want to cherry-pick for the senior team next year.

But for now, the 22 players on the gold medal-winning U.S. squad can look back on a rollercoaster year, and feel pretty good about themselves. On top of a laundry list of stocking stuffers -- which includes an exciting new group of talent in Natasha Kai, Rodriguez, Cheney, Rachel Buehler and Tobin Heath, the brilliant emergence of vet Angela Hucles, the hiring of dynamic head coach Sundhage, an Olympic gold medal and the return of a professional league -- the Americans hit the jackpot with a 31-1-2 mark in 2008. The team set records for wins and best winning percentage in a calendar year. Some might ask: Is this the best U.S. women's team ever?

"I think records aside, each team is different in their own way," said Lilly, the only woman to play in all five FIFA Women's World Cups. "This team has accomplished a lot, with a new coach, roster changes, an Olympic gold medal. Hopefully, looking forward, each year the team will get better."

Before they can officially ring in 2009, the U.S. women need to finish the year the way they started it. The final two games -- both against China, first in California and then Detroit on Dec. 17 -- will be the U.S. women's third and fourth matches against their longtime rivals. The Yanks' previous two matches against China were in the championship game of the Four Nations Tournament in January, and the opening game of the Algarve Cup in March, with the U.S. winning 1-0 and 4-0, respectively.

"This year has been very special," said Lindsay Tarpley, a native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who will be playing for the first time in front of her home crowd on the U.S. team. "We started the year with a new coach, Pia, and she has played a huge role in our success. I am most proud that we fought through a lot of adversity, losing key players due to injury, but we still found a way to pull together and win as a team."

The Americans have posted a 5-0-1 record for the "Achieve Your Gold" tour to date, including two victories and one draw against South Korea in a three-game series in November.

And like any American "welcome back" party, there are bound to be a few surprises, and hopefully some fireworks out on the field -- courtesy of a team full of gold medalists.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at soccerdols@gmail.com.

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