In the space of a single tournament, Carli Lloyd traveled from underrated American great to all-time national team legend. A successful World Cup can do that for a player, and her performance in 2015 required a far grander modifier than that.
Lloyd scored in each of the final four games of the tournament and needed only 16 minutes of the final to deliver a dazzling hat trick, tearing through the knockout stages on a mission to add another star to the United States women’s national team’s crest – and to establish her standing among the greatest American players.
When it was over, it suddenly was impossible to discuss the greatest players in U.S. history — Michele Akers, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Abby Wambach — without including Lloyd in the conversation.
The game of women’s soccer took another huge leap forward in the 2010s, with professional leagues becoming more established and lucrative in the U.S. and Europe and audiences for the major tournaments multiplying. And though there were many extraordinary players accelerating that growth, no one stood above the crowd more than Lloyd.
She scored the decisive goal at both the 2012 London Olympics and the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She scored a combined five goals in those finals. She scored a combined 10 goals in those two tournaments, and they were mostly against heavyweights: four on Japan, one on Germany, one on France.
Before she traveled to Canada to take on the world in 2015, Lloyd talked with Sporting News about her propensity to score goals in the biggest games. Our conversation occurred when some statisticians had begun making the case that there was no such thing as a clutch player. And Lloyd, in a semantic sense, agreed with that contention.
“I would maybe use a different term. I would use ‘champions,’” Lloyd told SN. “You’ve got the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Messi — all these players who can step out onto the field and help win a game for their team.
“Those are the moments you live for. I love those moments: the pressure situations, when everbody’s doubting you and your back’s up against the wall. I think throughout my career I’ve constantly proved all the doubters wrong.”
One of those, in 2012, was USWNT coach Pia Sundhage. After a messy performance in a pre-Olympic friendly in Philadelphia, right in the region where Lloyd grew up, Sundhage benched Lloyd for the start of the London Games. Before 20 minutes of the opener against France had passed, however, Shannon Boxx was injured and Lloyd was sent in to replace her. That move, however coerced, might have been the most important in the U.S. winning the next two major world titles.
Lloyd became the highest-scoring midfielder in USWNT history, and now that she has moved to forward she stands fourth all time in goals (behind Wambach, Hamm and Lilly) and third in caps (behind Lilly and defender Christie Rampone).
In 2015 and 2016, she was named the omen’s world player of the year by FIFA.
“I think the real fans and my teammates have gained a lot of respect for me over the years,” Lloyd told SN in 2015. “When I first came on the scene, I had these talents, but I also had to learn to be a pro on and off the field. I had to get myself fit. I wasn’t really international-ready. With each year, I feel that I have continued to improve.
“For whatever reason, it’s great that our team is marketed, and there’s a number of players who totally, 100 percent, deserve it. I’m kind of wanting to write my own unique story. I’d rather be known as a great player than someone on a billboard. I don’t worry about how I look on the field. I worry about how I’m going to play, how hard I’m going to work, those kinds of things. I’m not worried about how many Twitter followers I have, or who’s jumping on board, who’s watching me. I just want to be the greatest player that I can be. And each and every day I’m striving to be that.”
When Lloyd and I spoke again before the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, her position was different and so was her stature. At 37, she had been moved to forward and, with the U.S. featuring such a gifted front line in their 4-3-3 — Megan Rapinoe on the left, Alex Morgan in the middle, Tobin Heath on the right — Lloyd was coming off the bench.
The fire evident in her rampage through the 2015 World Cup still was raging — so much so that when I asked about her adjustment to the super-sub role I felt her umbrage burning into my retinas. No one calls Carli Lloyd a “sub,” even if she’s coming off the bench.
“I wouldn’t say it’s adjusting. I would say it’s trying to earn a starting spot back,” Lloyd told Sporting News. “There’s no adjusting to being a super-sub. There’s grinding every single day while none of you guys are watching. Repetition after repetition of continuously getting better at things I can get better at. I’m going to be hungry to continue to get better. I’m not sitting here and saying I have the game solved and I’m a perfect player.”
Lloyd played in every game of the 2019 World Cup. She scored three more goals to make her the first player to score in six consecutive Women’s World Cup games and give her a total of 17 in major tournaments. She helped close out harrowing victories over Spain, France, England and the Netherlands on the way to the title.
She insisted an ankle injury that occurred just as coach Jill Ellis was changing the formation to the 4-3-3 ruined her chances to remain a starter, and even after celebrating the world championship she acknowledged to ESPN that it had been a difficult time. “I deserved to be on that field that whole World Cup,” she said, “But I wasn’t.”
She wouldn’t be Carli Lloyd if she thought otherwise.
She wouldn’t have been women’s soccer Athlete of the Decade.
By the numbers
Career goals: 121
World tournament championships: 4
Career world tournament goals: 17
What they’re saying:
“Carli Lloyd has always played simply for the love of the game. Not for getting endorsement deals, not for the glitz or the glamour. She wants the black eye, she wants the bloody noses. She wants to go in for hard tackles. That’s what makes her beautiful inside and out. That’s what makes her a champion.” — Hope Solo, former USWNT goalkeeper
The next decade belongs to: Ada Hegerberg, Olympique Lyonnais and Norway
Hegerberg, 24, already is the best player in the world, and has been for at least two years. She joined Lyon at 19 and has scored 144 goals in 116 games, including 49 in 43 Champions League appearances. If she truly wants to dominate world soccer, however, and if Norway wants her to do it for their national team, there must be some accommodation in her dispute with the federation. She boycotted the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup over the federation’s handling of the women’s team, and Norway was competitive without her. What would have happened with Hegerberg’s talent at its core?