Sports

Nobody Went After It More Than Carli Lloyd

The retiring USWNT star could make something happen when nothing seemed to be going right.

Lloyd grinning and raising her fists as she kneels on the pitch in celebration
Carli Lloyd at the bronze medal match between Australia and the United States at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Kashima, Japan, on Aug. 5. Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images

She would hate it, but there’s no way to talk about the career of Carli Lloyd—who announced Monday that she would be retiring from professional soccer after four more games with the U.S. women’s national team and the conclusion of this National Women’s Soccer League season—without talking about that goal.

It starts with a bad Japanese giveaway. When Lloyd first touches the ball, on the edge of the center circle nearest to her goal, the situation could not possibly be more innocuous. Nine American players are behind her. Alex Morgan, the option ahead, takes off at a sprint, a perfectly reasonable thing to do in this scenario.

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Lloyd’s first touch is a bad one, but with her second, she jabs a foot out and pokes the ball past the defender, who nearly takes it from her. Then, it’s her third that bites all the way through the Tootsie Pop. With the ball just a step past the center line, Lloyd reared back with the leg that would spark rumors she could jump to the NFL one day and hit the perfect 54-yard flat-arced lob. Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori—who wasn’t even that far off her line—backpedaled furiously and got a hand to it, just enough to push it off the post and in. Fifteen minutes and four seconds had passed in the 2015 World Cup final. The U.S. led 4–0, with three of those goals belonging to Lloyd.

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It is not the most dramatic or cathartic moment in USWNT history, but it might be the most plainly enjoyable. We don’t just watch sports for drama and catharsis. Sometimes it’s gratifying to see excellence executed in such a way as to leave no doubt. It is Dame Lillard from the logo; it is Shohei Ohtani exiting the building—all on the biggest possible stage with logarithmic amounts of swag. If Megan Rapinoe had done it, she would still be posing, six years later, in the middle of BC Place in Vancouver. That’s not a value judgment on Rapinoe or her celebrations, just recognizing the sheer awesomeness of Lloyd’s goal.

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With nearly 75 minutes to go in that World Cup final, the U.S. was all but assured of becoming the 2015 World Cup champions, of avenging the team’s 2011 defeat to Japan wherein Lloyd (and two other Americans) missed their penalties in the shootout. Only one other person in the history of the sport had ever scored three goals in a World Cup final, and England’s Geoff Hurst needed 30 minutes of extra time to score his second and third in 1966. Lloyd finished hers in 16 minutes; she could have spent the rest of the match sitting in an armchair at midfield and still been named the tournament’s best player, if sitting idly at midfield weren’t antithetical to everything Carli Lloyd stood for as a player.

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For Lloyd, that goal, the other two she scored in that final, and the rest of the 128 she scored total for the USWNT were the direct result of days, weeks, months, and years of obsessive, repetitive work designed to turn her into the greatest soccer player she could possibly be. Nobody wanted it more than Carli Lloyd. Nobody suffered more pain for the gains that she reaped.

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Her devotion to her own improvement had obvious payoff. Lloyd hit her peak as a 32-year-old, an age when most soccer players are learning to cope with the downslope of their careers. She was still starting Olympic matches for the national team at 39. “I don’t want to be remembered for one World Cup final,” her own U.S. Soccer bio quotes her as saying. “I want to be remembered for my whole career. It was just a stepping stone, and I want to continue to get better.” She called her memoir When Nobody Was Watching.

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There is a danger to over-romanticizing this kind of player, to using the fact that nobody worked harder than Carli Lloyd to discount all the work everyone else puts in, as though others are just getting by on natural talent. Lloyd herself sometimes seemed to believe this, that since she measured herself by her effort, everyone else should be judged that way too, and to her, they were often found wanting. She was always an outsider, and it seemed she preferred it that way, fueling her career on anger and slights both perceived and actual. She clashed with coaches, with teammates, and even had a lengthy estrangement from her family, which was finally reconciled during the pandemic last year. How could they hope to understand her when they hadn’t been watching during the days, weeks, months, and years?

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All of this conspired to make her the perfect plan B for the USWNT for more than 15 years. She could make something happen when nothing seemed to be going right. She was an expert at anticipating the bounce of loose balls in the box and dispatching them with cool efficiency. Her long-range shooting was unrivaled. And because of this skill set she will exit with the second-most appearances in the history of international soccer and either the fifth- or fourth-most goals, depending on how many she scores during her four-game farewell tour planned for this fall. (She needs two to tie Kristine Lilly in fourth.) She scored the winning goals in the 2008 Olympic final, the 2012 Olympic final, and the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 2015 World Cup. She was the square peg who made it worth the effort to fit her into a round hole. No coach ever wanted to be the one to take the chance of going without what she could provide, of not having Lloyd under glass somewhere to be broken in case of emergency.

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Not that Lloyd was ever happy about being any kind of backup. In 2012, she was dropped from the starting lineup for the Olympics by coach Pia Sundhage, supposedly in the interest of better ball security in midfield, though Lloyd blames a self-described poor half she played in a warmup friendly. (She was soon reinstated after an injury to another player, but the grudge lived on for years.) Lloyd sometimes chafed under the management of Sundhage’s successor Jill Ellis, too. At the beginning of her tenure, Ellis moved Lloyd around to different positions and tried her in different partnerships, trying to find the best fit within the team. Lloyd’s breakout in 2015 was facilitated by Lauren Cheney agreeing to play a more defensive role alongside her, and her triumph in the World Cup final came only when Ellis finally gave her a free role under Morgan to roam and do as she pleased. When that role disappeared, much to Lloyd’s frustration, she remade herself as a center forward and claimed the backup spot on a team at the 2019 World Cup that was full of displaced center forwards.

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But the same qualities that led her to take over games when nothing else was working often made her an awkward fit within the team’s plan A, whether that was lobbing crosses in for Abby Wambach in the decade’s early years or drilling backlines with an overload of inverted wingers and crashing central midfielders at its end. She could be erratic with her passing, and sometimes appeared too selfish, rarely doing the type of playmaking you’d want to see out of an attacking midfielder. There was a sense that she wanted actual games to be like those countless hours of work she had never stopped putting in, that she treated soccer as an individual sport: Carli vs. the world, picking up the ball at the halfway circle and deciding she was going to take care of it herself, in three touches or less.

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She never managed to translate her national team success to the club level, never managed to single-handedly drag a team to success through a league season. In her 12 club seasons, spread across six American teams in the old Women’s Professional Soccer league and the National Women’s Soccer League, her team has never finished in the top half of the table. (Her NJ/NY Gotham FC is currently in third place in the NWSL standings, but due to her national team commitments Lloyd has played just four out of 13 games this season, and has yet to score.) Her greatest club success came with Manchester City in 2017, where she parachuted in on loan for the eight-game FA WSL Spring Series mini-tournament, finishing second and winning the FA Women’s Cup—all while making just six appearances after she received a three-game ban for elbowing an opponent in the face.

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But these club results are a little beside the point, like docking Allen Iverson’s early 2000s run for only winning a bronze in Athens in 2004. Different players succeed in different arenas. Lloyd’s canvas was the national team; that’s the one she ground through injury rehabilitations to get ready for. She was its capstone, the one to get them over the hump, with enough chip on her shoulder for 10 teammates to share. For more than a decade, the USWNT had Lloyd there to bail it out on its bad days, to push through the wreckage of a broken game plan and score the goal that no one else could find, to make it hard to beat. The work she put in raised that team’s floor, and in doing so lifted it to heights greater than it had ever seen before.

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