Interview by Mike Woitalla for Soccer America
Kristine Lilly, the world record holder for national team appearances with 352, debuted for the USA at age 16 in 1987 and retired in 2010 at age 39. We checked in with the veteran of five World Cups and three Olympic Games for her insights on American youth soccer, past and present.
SOCCER AMERICA: What have you been up to since hanging up your cleats?
KRISTINE LILLY: Raising two kids … I'm assistant coach of the Boston Breakers [WPSL]. I coach at my camps and give private lessons [Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy]. … I’ve built some partnerships. One is with Korrio. ... I give speeches, promoting the game. …
SOCCER AMERICA: Is there anything you remember about the coaching you got during your youth days that you think was especially important to your success?
KRISTINE LILLY: I can tell you that most of what I remember was oranges at halftime. Sodas or drinks after the game [laughs]. And having fun. I have good memories. That means people were doing the right things.
A lot of the coaches I had back then were just fathers. Some didn’t know the game and some did. I was fortunate to have some good people around me all the time.
SA: Was there a point during your youth soccer that you realized you had the potential to play at the high levels?
KRISTINE LILLY: I didn’t because when I was young there was no higher level. There wasn’t a national team until 1985. There was no Olympics, no World Cup for [women’s] soccer. College wasn’t really in my mindset when I was little. I didn’t know a lot about it.
I loved playing. I had fun. I competed in soccer. I played hard-ball baseball when I was younger. I played basketball. I tried gymnastics. I tried tennis. Sports were just the basis of what I did.
SA: And growing up in Connecticut you played on boys teams because they didn’t have girls soccer yet?
KRISTINE LILLY: I played on boys teams growing up. They were just starting to have some girls teams, but I played with boys until high school.
SA: What influence did your parents have on your success in soccer?
KRISTINE LILLY: They opened the doors for us. We were a very sports-oriented family. On weekends, sports were on TV. Football, any sport … bowling, baseball. We’d always have sports on.
And they’d let us try everything. They were very encouraging. If we wanted to try something, they’d say “OK.” The only thing was they’d say is, “You have to finish it. You can’t quit.”
If we didn’t like something, we had to finish it out. But they opened the doors for us.
SA: How different do you imagine your soccer experience was from today’s youth soccer environment?
KRISTINE LILLY: If you’re talking 8, 9 to 12, I hope it’s not much different but I have a feeling it might be. Because I hear so much about clubs that are recruiting 10-year-olds and that’s really not what was going on when I was younger.
You played for your town team. Maybe if you were good you made the A team and they had a B team. So you represented your community and played within your area and for your state and moved on from there.
Nowadays I think it’s a little more consuming for the kids, which I think is a little bit unfortunate. What I hear is that kids are getting burned out early and that’s sad, because you shouldn’t be burned out at 12 years old.
SA: Do you think parents approach youth soccer differently now?
KRISTINE LILLY: Parents now are probably a little more involved than mine were. Mine were involved but I didn’t realize it and they didn’t tell me to do something. Now parents are worried about whether their children are playing premier, or for this club or that club. I don’t really care. Is your kid having fun?
There’s only a handful of kids who are going to make it to the national level. There are a lot more doors open for college scholarships, which has created different avenues, and that’s a positive, but I think we shouldn’t lose sight on the kids and just make sure they’re having fun.
SA: What’s your coaching philosophy?
KRISTINE LILLY: I believe in the basics. Passing, dribbling, shooting, heading. The proper technique. I teach that to young kids and to high school kids, and even with Breakers it's a big part of the training I do.
(Kristine Lilly scored 130 goals in 352 games for the USA in 1987-2010 and was a member of two World Cup and two Olympic championship teams. She played pro club ball in Sweden, the WUSA and WPS. Lilly won four national championships with the University of North Carolina. She's assistant coach of the WPSL Eite's Boston Breakers, runs the Kristine Lilly Soccer Academy and is the soccer ambassador for Korrio, an integrated sports automation platform developer.)