HARRISON, N.J. — Thousands of eyes and the blazing midday sun followed Carli Lloyd with equal intensity as she went through her pregame routine before the U.S. women’s national team played its final World Cup send-off game last week. As her teammates warmed up in groups around her, Lloyd dribbled in patterns discernible only to her. She juggled. She paused and surveyed the field.
In stadium after stadium, the same scene played out over the past year, Lloyd in her own space.
On the eve of her fourth Women’s World Cup, she intends to be ready when her moment comes. And she believes it will come. She knows only one way to prepare. Not as a starter. Not as a substitute. But as Carli Lloyd.
“This last and final phase,” Lloyd said recently of her soccer journey, “the belief I have in myself is probably stronger than the entire course of my career.”
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It’s convenient to say Lloyd’s signature moment arrived in the 2015 World Cup, but it isn’t accurate. No single moment earned her the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament and catapulted someone who already had scored gold medal-clinching goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics to a level of stardom few achieve. It wasn’t the opening goal against Germany in the semifinal. It wasn’t the goal from near midfield in the final, or even the first-half hat trick in that game against Japan.
It was all of it. Lloyd’s moment four years ago stretched over days as she breathed oxygen into a smoldering U.S. attack.
Four years on, a moment might be precisely the scale of opportunity that awaits Lloyd as the World Cup opens Friday. She’s 36 years old now, older than Marta or Christine Sinclair, but by her own estimation, Lloyd is the fittest she has ever been. She is ready, willing and insistent that she can play 90 minutes as often as asked. Yet to be a centerpiece of a world championship at 36 would, statistically, break new ground — and force Lloyd to excel in a role she doesn’t particularly want.
Through 2016, Lloyd started in 176 of 202 appearances for the United States over the previous nine years. She has come on as a substitute in 28 of 42 appearances since the start of 2017, more than those previous nine years combined. Eight of her nine appearances this year are as a sub.
When the U.S. women committed to a 4-3-3 formation in 2017, in part to get Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe on the field together, it came partly at the expense of a natural fit for a midfielder like Lloyd. To ask her to not only chase from box to box but cover so much ground laterally at this stage of her career risks playing against her strengths and wasting her skills in and around the 18-yard box. The shift also coincided with the emergence of Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis, a new generation of midfielders who needed and earned minutes.
But in the aftermath of the Rio Olympics, U.S. coach Jill Ellis struggled to find a second option up top in the middle who could be an aerial presence and hold-up player if Morgan wasn’t on the field or deployed wide. Enter Lloyd, still as good in the air as anyone on the roster and whose 110 international goals — 74 of them in her 30s — speak to her finishing instincts. The results of late: 10 goals in her past 16 appearances, five of which were scored in the team’s final four games entering the World Cup. It lends a measure of statistical support to her assessment that she is playing the best soccer of her life and is more well-rounded after getting up to speed as a forward.
Not that she is looking for outside confirmation.
“That’s not for anyone else to judge, that’s for me personally,” Lloyd said. “I know where I am. I know the kind of football I’m playing. I see myself grinding every single day, improving on things every single day. … I’m the sharpest I’ve ever been. I think my finishing ability, because I’ve been really, really working on that, has improved tremendously.”
Asked after her most recent off-the-bench brace against New Zealand if she was beginning to enjoy the role of second-half game changer, Lloyd’s raised her eyebrows.
“I’m trying to get off the bench,” she said. “If I liked coming off the bench, there would be something wrong. That’s not my mindset. I want to do everything I can to help this team. I’ve been sharp every single day in training, which none of you see, and just trying to be better every single day.
“People always say, ‘You’ve got this chip on your shoulder,’ [and it’s about] proving people wrong,” she added. “To an extent, yes, but that’s who I am, that’s how I’m wired. I’m competitive with every single thing that I do, whether it’s in a training session with a 4-v-4 match or at home kicking around, got my husband on the opposite team. It doesn’t matter that you’re my husband, I’m going to be a train wreck and I’m going to come through you. That’s just how I’ve been. I believe in myself every single step of the way.”
How Lloyd fits into the U.S. women’s effort in France — their first game is June 11 against Thailand — is one of the World Cup’s intriguing subplots. It is not, however, anything the tournament hasn’t seen before. When Germany lost in the knockout rounds at home in the 2011 World Cup, 33-year-old Birgit Prinz — a veteran forward who was central to world titles in 2003 and 2007 — got a sizable chunk of the blame for faltering as a starter early in the tournament. Four years ago, on the other hand, then-35-year-old Abby Wambach’s willingness to accept a secondary role as the tournament progressed helped the U.S. women succeed, tactically on the field and behind the scenes.
Anyone who expects Lloyd to settle into the role of reserved elder stateswoman will be disappointed. She gets along fine with her teammates; one of three captains, she says she’s having the time of her life playing with this group. But she will always believe she should be starting and goes out every day to prove it. That’s not a bad thing for a team that has 11 players making their World Cup debut. If Lloyd’s greatest strength is her unwavering belief, the team should use it as a reminder to train like someone is coming for your job.
“We kind of make jokes now that she’s gotten a bit softer, now that she’s married and living with her husband and things like that,” U.S. defender Crystal Dunn said. “But she’s still the same Carli, bringing her A-game and really competing every single training and proving that she’s a top player.”
So Lloyd waits. Not quite brooding but far from content. Not ready to merely lend her support. Ready for one opportunity to show everyone else what she believed all along.
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