Ben Cohen

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Grandma’s Still Got It

EAST RUTHERFORD — Nearly eight years ago to the day, a sellout crowd packed Giants Stadium to see the United States women’s national team beat Denmark 3-0 in the first game of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

On Saturday in the same venue, the crowd was noticeably smaller, the players wore a noticeably different color, and the roster was noticeably lacking of big-name stars. The Americans debuted their snazzy gold uniforms in a friendly with Brazil, but drew only 16,856 fans, partly because the icons of the past have been replaced by budding stars of the future.

Almost the entire setting was different, but the 2-0 winning result was the same because of Kristine Lilly.

Lilly, the captain and prime source of consistency on this fledgling national team; the 36-year old matriarch dubbed “Grandma” by the youngsters; the United States’ all-time leader in international appearances; the midfielder on four World Cup teams and three Olympic squads.

Just 58 seconds into the match, Lilly used her left foot to send a gorgeous, 18-yard free kick into the top left corner of the net. The quick strike, which even surprised her, essentially ended the game even before the 22 field players had broken a sweat on the unusually cool summer afternoon.

“It sure helped a lot. The first minute of the game to put in a shot like that, you can’t hit that ball much better,” United States head coach Greg Ryan said. “She did a fantastic job and sparked the team. She put Brazil immediately on their heels. They were reeling after that. It gave us a lot of momentum.”

With the 2-0 win, the United States extended its unbeaten streak to 42 matches.

Ryan substituted for Lilly in the 85th minute, and the best-known link from past to present received a rousing ovation. Grandma understands her importance, both to her teammates and her fans.

“I’ve always led by example,” Lilly said. “I’m more vocal now because all my old ladies are gone that used to talk. But for me, it’s just to play. If I play and lead by example, it encourages the team to make sure we’re not worrying about the game and make sure we’re playing our game. I think I help with that.”

Lilly is the team’s unquestioned leader, but Abby Wambach continued to cement her status as the squad’s most potent scorer. After Cat Whitehill sent a 50-yard free kick soaring into the box in the 17th minute, Wambach headed the offering past a frozen Brazilian goalkeeper Andrea, who opted to hold her line rather than charge out and punch the ball away. Wambach ability to capitalize on the mistake sent the subdued crowd into a frenzy and sealed the victory early. The score came just 15 minutes after Wambach sent a shot that appeared to sneak into the goal’s top corner, but really hit the side of the net.

The swath of empty seats in the stadium’s lower section marked a stark contrast from the World Cup game in 1999, when Mia Hamm and her brethren of women’s soccer pioneers filled 78,972 seats. Saturday’s game was only a friendly, but the vacant top two tiers were an unmistakable reminder that this team still has plenty of fans to win.

With Lilly still wearing the red, (gold), and blue, the fans are guaranteed a big attraction, even if her name is not Mia Hamm. And the oldest player on the team has no reason to hang up her Nike cleats when she’s playing at such a high level.

“When things are getting tough and the game is scrappy, you look to your leadership, and Kristine is our ultimate leader and captain,” said Heather O’Reilly, an East Brunswick native that attended the 1999 game as a fan. “The way that she battles, yet keeps her poise and composure, is really impressive, and it’s something that this team needs.”

(The Herald News, 6/24/07)

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