The most decorated player in U.S. soccer history is trying to help others reach their pinnacle
There isn’t a LinkedIn page big enough to hold Kristine Lilly’s accomplishments. She is the most decorated soccer player in U.S. history. Her 354 international caps are a world record. She is both the youngest and oldest player ever to score goals for the U.S. women’s national team. She was the first woman ever to play in five World Cups (winning two). She has two U.S. Olympic gold medals and one silver medal. As a founder of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), she was the only player named to the First Team All-WUSA for all three seasons of the league’s existence. Given this unparalleled success in the soccer world, Lilly is now sharing the lessons she has learned in team-building with the business world in a new book. She recently spoke with Radio Free Soccer about her extraordinary life and the birth of U.S. women’s soccer.
Your new book is called Powerhouse: 13 Teamwork Tactics that Build Excellence and Unrivaled Success. You’ve had unrivaled success in your career. What inspired the book?
The two other authors that I wrote this with, we met about three years ago. John Gillis and I coached our kids together, and then we were talking about soccer and the success of the national team. He’s in the business world, and he told me that our team had such a great story that resonates with more than just the soccer world. So we worked together to create this book about the success of the U.S. women’s national team and how we could share our successes with others in different organizations to help them be more successful.
We generally think of all of your team accomplishments on the field, but you were also creating the business of women’s soccer as well. What was the women’s soccer landscape like when you first came to the U.S. women’s team in 1987?
It was new to all of us. I didn’t know that the U.S. team even existed. It was just about two years old and it wasn’t very busy. We were getting hand me down clothes from the men’s side. We were playing on a high school fields with dirt. So obviously the standards weren’t very high, but we didn’t know any different because you were growing up in a time where that was the way things were. In the process of training to be the best and to be on this team consistently day in and day out, we also realized that we needed to make a bigger impact and fight for what was right. And that’s the fight we started, just to get paid, to get more per diem, and all these different things. We were learning what it meant to be a part of a team on the soccer field, but also what it meant to be a part of a group fighting for what was right.
Without having people to model yourself after— there was no U.S. national team when you were growing up, or a pro league—what attracted you to the game in the first place?
Love! I loved playing soccer. I loved how it made me feel when I stepped out on the field. I loved my teammates. I loved playing with my friends. I loved trying to be the best at something, and I was excelling in soccer. And then joining the national team, I loved being around other women that were like me that were good soccer players, competitive, athletic, smart, talented, wanted to sweat, wanted to win and were mad when they lost, but knew how to handle losing. All these wonderful things took place when I joined the team.
If the U.S. women’s team was formed while you were in high school, what did you think that you would study or do as a career?
When I was a kid, I always loved animals, so maybe I would have wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved photography, but I didn’t have that mind yet of what I really want it to be. When I went to college, I ended up majoring in communications. My dad was in TV and sold daytime sales. My brother was in that marketing world. So I didn’t really know. I knew that if I could play soccer and continue to do my schoolwork, I might be fortunate enough to play at a university. And then things started to snowball from there.
Speaking of snowballing, four years later in 1991, you were on the first ever US women’s World Cup team that goes to play in China. Was it overwhelming to go from being a college player to this global stage?
It was awesome, because I was a junior in high school when I made the team, so I was already in the mix with the national team before college. So it was great to go compete with the U.S. team and then come back to high school and college. I felt like, “Oh good. I can take a deep breath.” It wasn’t as stressful as that environment, although it was still competitive. So it was a great balance for me going up to play in the World Cup, and then coming back to my college team.
China was a very different place in 1991. What was that experience like for you?
In ‘91, the majority of China’s transportation was on bicycles. I think that’s one thing that’s struck me. When I went there as a young person, I was like, “Oh my gosh. Look at all these bikes!” They were just everywhere. And people there were mesmerized by us, because I think at this time, I’m not sure a lot of Chinese people were traveling the world and seeing American people with different color hair. They loved the blonde people on our team. Everyone was really nice, and we are always in remote areas. It wasn’t like the big cities of China. You’d walk around, and these older people are carrying water on both sides of the stick and they’re just living life in a different way. It was all an eye-opening experience for a 20-year-old kid from a small town in Connecticut.
After you win, obviously you knew it was the first World Cup, but did you have a sense of what it would become over time?
No, we didn’t. We didn’t have this big picture, because when we finally had a World Cup, it was like, “Wow! Okay.” And then people weren’t really calling it an official World Cup because they didn’t know if it was going to be successful or not, so we didn’t know if there would be another one. So we’re just like, ok, we won. Now what do we do? (laughs). For some of us, that was going back to college and I think a lot of us didn’t know if we were going to continue to play. Fortunately, there was another World Cup in 1995, and then we got into the Olympics in ‘96 and that was when I’m like, maybe we can continue to do this.
So you go back to college at North Carolina and finish school. There’s no definitive 1995 World Cup yet. There’s no women’s Olympic soccer team yet. There’s no pro league. What were you going to do? I was just going to graduate and then go home to mom and dad’s! (laughs) Some people knew what they want to do. Julie Foudy was into medicine, so she knew she kind of wanted to go the doctor route. But I honestly didn’t know. I think I just was going to play and graduate, and then see what happens. Fortunately, I was still talented enough to continue to make the team and have a career out of it.
I imagine the U.S. team wasn’t compensating you to the point where that was enough. How were you making a living?
Even before I was on the team, the older players had jobs, and some of them had quit because they couldn’t make ends meet. And then I graduated in December of ’93. My parents supported me until I signed my first endorsement deal with Adidas in 1995, and that was really awesome, because then I was able to continue to play and focus on soccer, because U.S. Soccer wasn’t paying us anything until 1995.
When you are not with the U.S. team at that time, where are you playing soccer?
After I graduated, I would go back to school at North Carolina and train there. And then, I lived in Connecticut. So I would go down to the big field house at my high school in the winter and train inside, kicking the ball against the wall. I joined a men’s professional indoor league, and I trained there for two months in the summer to just to be competitive. You just had to find places to play to be honest with you.
Were you the only woman playing in the men’s indoor league?
Another woman had done this as well before, but I was the only one at that time. It was the Continental Indoor Soccer League, and I was there for two months in the summer. I signed a contract for a thousand bucks to play for the Washington Warthogs.
So when did the first Olympic team become a reality? You probably never even dreamed that it would be a possibility when you were a kid.
Well, as a kid, I dreamed I’d be in the Olympics, but I thought it was for gymnastics. But I wasn’t very good at that (laughs). I don’t remember if we found out before the ‘95 World Cup, but it had to be at least a year before, I would imagine. And then it was awesome, because it was like, oh my God, we have a chance to make the Olympics if you make the team. That was a really exciting moment for me.
You probably get asked every day about the ‘99 team and I think people look at that World Cup as a transcendent moment in women’s sports, as they should. But I think what people don’t realize is the amount of work that you all put in to promote that tournament. It wasn’t an overnight success that stadiums were selling out to see you play.
Yeah, it was a long process. It was at least 14 months that we were promoting the World Cup. It probably started even earlier. And I agree with your point. Remember, we would do a ton of media stuff. I mean, we signed autographs after every game anyway, but we knew the importance of it even more to connect with the fans. And then we did these sneak attacks leading up to the World Cup. We would just walk up to a soccer practice and say hi. I remember Mia (Hamm) and I did one in Boston and we walked up and were like, “Hey!” And we get the look. And then we got the double look (laughs). And they’re like, “Oh my God!” There were all these subtle things that we did. We knew if people came to watch us, that they would get hooked, not in an arrogant way. We just knew we had special personalities. We had enough talent to demonstrate that we could play the game. And we really had a way connecting with our fans. So a lot of the critics that wanted to make comments, we were like, look, before you comment, just come watch us. And then make your comments. So we pushed. We pushed it in every aspect of playing, training to be the best, and then getting people in the seats, and it all worked.
Was there, in hindsight, a tipping point where it really elevated to a different level.
It wasn’t until the game started. I mean it wasn’t until the first game when it was just about sold out that we were like, holy cow!
How did your life change after that tournament?
Well, instead of explaining who we were and what team we played on, people knew. And that was something that we’ve been waiting for, just so that we didn’t have to educate people anymore about the women’s game. They knew about it. We became household names when we were traveling, doing different shows and media stuff. We were partnering with businesses to promote their brands and promoting our brand at the soccer. It was super fun to celebrate the game and what we had accomplished and what we wanted to keep pushing forward.
Did any of you feel prepared for that level of celebrity?
It was intense, and I think obviously there were different levels of it. Brandi (Chastain) had a lot more with her winning kick that escalated a lot of attention. I don’t know if you are ever prepared. I think Mia had a taste of it starting in 1996, when we won the gold medal. She became more of the face of our game. I think we just kind of welcomed it, because we had been waiting so long for people to understand what we were trying to show them playing on the field and what we can do off the field.
Brandi Chastain has mentioned previously that despite her receiving that attention for the winning kick, it was your play heading the ball off of the goal line in the final game in extra time that saved the World Cup for the U.S. Specifically, she mentioned that it was the quintessential example of how as a teammate, you could be trusted to do everything fundamentally correct and not cut corners. So as talented as a team as you were, how were you all able to develop that kind of trust in one another?
It was built over time. We relied on each other back in the day. When we were traveling, we relied on each other for the comfort of competition for a second family, because we were on the road. And we relied on each other to pushing one other to be better soccer players and better people. We all loved the game, and we all wanted to show people the game. So we had the same mindset. We had the same foundation. We had the same purpose, and we elevated each other in the process. Competing on the field, you’re playing at the highest level. So it can’t be like, “Yay, this is so great!” It’s competitive, and obviously some people don’t make it, but you compete, and you wish nothing but the best for the team.
After that World Cup, the WUSA is formed. It’s the first ever U.S. women’s professional soccer league. You were a founding member of the league, and even though you were still only 30 at the time, you had been playing at the highest level for 14 years already when the league started. It must have been immensely rewarding to be part of that.
Yeah, I think that was the last straw that we wanted to be a part of. We wanted to have a pro league and when we started the WUSA in 2001, we were hoping that it would be the last piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, it was just a stepping stone to the league we currently have now. But it was great. It was great to be in one place and train with a team that you could compete with, play games on the weekends, have fans, and be a professional athlete. It was tremendous.
What was it like the first time you step on the field and you’re wearing a professional team jersey.
Oh, it was so great. When I did it, I realized why every male athlete loves their job, because it was so great to have a place to compete and people come support you.
So many great players from around the world came to play there because it was an opportunity for them to play professionally as well. What was the level of play like that first season with all of that talent there?
It was unbelievable. The interesting thing is we had some of the top players from all over the world, Germany, Norway, Brazil, Sweden. I had two Germans and a Norwegian on my team, and one of them beat me in a semifinal. I played against them in the Olympics. So there was a lot talk about that stuff, and then they became my teammate and good friends, and it was awesome. They raised the talent level with all our top American players, and it was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget.
How did you find out that the league was folding in 2003?
I think our captain, Julie Foudy, told us that it was folding right before the 2003 World Cup. It was tough to take, especially right before the World Cup.
We can list your accomplishments for days. Which soccer accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’ve grown to appreciate the longevity I had on the team. I think I played 23 years on the U.S. team and for 22 of those years, I was, a starter. Towards the end of my career, I came off having a baby and I didn’t break into the starting line up again. So I was really proud of that. And all the women I got to play with, there are so many incredible people, not just the soccer players, but people that have the drive and desire to be the best and make soccer better, put it in a better place than it was when we started.
I’m sure there are a lot of things that are easier now than they were when you started a new career. But are there things that you see in women’s soccer now that are harder?
Social media, pretty much. That sums it up.
Just the interaction and the critics?
Well, maybe that. But when we were on the bus, we didn’t have phones, so we had to talk to one another. When you get on the bus now, everyone is looking down on their phones looking, so it’s very isolated. I wouldn’t have liked that, because it was such a great thing to be on the bus or in the locker room. We’d be on road trips, meeting in the hallway, and playing a game of cards. So it was just a different time, I’m not sure how I would have handled that.
How does it feel after having gone through all those battles for respect and compensation and everything that you all fought for, to see this current iteration of the team having to battle in court for equal pay and playing conditions?
It’s just frustrating. It really is. I mean, it starts with the 2015 World Cup with the turf. If you’re not going to put the men on it, don’t put the women on it. It’s as simple as that. It, that’s what we’re, we’re talking about. You just hope that people start making more of a proactive movement on this front.
Are you optimistic about where the NWSL is going?
I am. I think they have a good stronghold on the investors that they have. The attendance for some of the teams is good. Where we struggle is with the attendance overall, and that needs to be better. If we could figure that out, I think we’ll solve a lot of things. But I know that kids in the summer are busy playing soccer or they’re traveling. But I think if we can nail that down and find ways to get people in the stands and commit to season tickets and generate income that way, then the investors will see big sponsors. We’ll see it on TV. So it’s just hard. It would really help for everyone to come out and support the women’s league.
In addition to being an author and a mom, what else are you doing these days?
Lots of coaching! I do clinics and camps in the summer, and then I’m coaching my kids’ soccer team town. I’m just trying to help kids enjoy the game, get better, and feel better about themselves and more together as a team.
As a youth soccer coach, do you have parents trying to explain to you why their kid should be playing or how they should be playing?
You know, I haven’t had that yet (laughs). I always work with someone else, and I think they get to hear all that. Cause I think if they said it to me, that would be like, wow (laughs). But it’s a tough world. Parents are tough. I’m a parent now and I do catch myself on the sidelines sometimes. But overall, I think you have got to let the kids be.
Do you feel like we’re doing youth soccer well in this country?
I don’t think it’s just soccer. Youth sports has become a business instead of a place for kids to play. And I’m not sure we can ever get out of the business. But more focus needs to be on the kids, instead of the coaches. And although I believe in competing and keeping track of winning and losing, I think our emphasis is on winning too much. We’re focused so much on the winning, that we’re lacking in developing the players. And then we’re also lacking in teaching kids lessons that you’re not always going to start. You’re not always going to get in the game, or you’re not always getting a trophy. So I think there’s a lot of different elements in the youth sports world that need some help. And obviously if I had the answers or anyone did, we would not have this discussion. But I think it just got to go back to the kids. They play because they love it, and they want to have fun.
What should we look for at this year’s World Cup?
I think you’re going to see some great games. There are some new teams in the World Cup, where the level won’t be as high for those teams, but this is going to help them grow. For countries like Chile, South Africa and Ireland, just to name a few, they’re having this first World Cup experience is going to help their organization back home. They can say that we made the World Cup, so now we have to support our women, and that’s a great thing.
Kristine Lilly’s new book, Powerhouse: 13 Teamwork Tactics that Build Excellence and Unrivaled Success (Greenleaf) is available now.