Despite all her greatness as a midfielder and despite her 130 international goals, Kristine Lilly's best play was on the defensive side of the ball -- a save that kept the U.S. from a crushing defeat to China in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup final.
The moment is still fresh in my mind. I was 15 years old, sitting on the couch in my living room, quietly and nervously watching the game on television. China had a corner kick in the first overtime of the scoreless match. I remember the camera focusing on Lilly, preparing on the near post, pouring water on her face. Once the ball was put in play, China's Fan Yunjie quickly sent a header past a diving Briana Scurry -- and, in that split second, the game looked over. The ball was headed straight for the back of the net. The U.S., the host nation, was going to lose to China in the final in front of 90,185 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The tournament that the team had worked so hard to promote and win was going to end in sudden-death overtime.
But there was Lilly, calmly jumping up, heading the ball off the line. Brandi Chastain cleared it out of the box quickly, and the threat was over. I could breathe again. The U.S. went on to win the game on penalty kicks, with Lilly converting hers.
I remember JP Dellacamera, who called the game for ABC, saying as Lilly ran back up the field to her midfield spot (without any kind of noticeable reaction to the play she'd just made) that she was the kind of player every team needed on the post in that situation. "Somebody that doesn't panic," Dellacamera said. And that's exactly the kind of player that Lilly -- who announced her retirement on Wednesday -- was and exactly why she was right for that moment.
Not only is Lilly's header save off the line her best play, it's also the greatest save in the history of U.S. women's soccer.
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