Carli Lloyd: The Avenger

Carli Lloyd: The Avenger

By May 24, 2019 Issue 15, USWNT

Underestimate her at your own peril.

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There’s an unmistakable swagger to Carli Lloyd’s gait as she strides purposefully into a Nike event in Los Angeles, rocking that cocksure Jersey Girl vibe that all but screams, “To hell with age. There’s history to be made here.”

Much has been made of the fact that Lloyd will turn 37 during the upcoming Women’s World Cup in France and that her days as an all-conquering No. 10 are receding faster than Landon Donovan’s hairline. Ask Lloyd about the reports of her imminent demise and the U.S. co-captain rolls her eyes as if I’d just demanded to see her AARP card.

“Is Tom Brady too old? Is Serena Williams?” she says with a slight edge. “Look, people like to slap labels on you. You’re too old, you’re too slow, you’re too this, you’re too that. But the thing is, I’m a winner. It’s in my blood.”

You’d think by now, after all that Lloyd has accomplished—delivering a hat trick for the ages in just 16 minutes during the 2015 World Cup final, capturing the Golden Boot as the tournament’s outstanding player, scoring the decisive goals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals, twice being voted World Player of the Year, and even being urged to run for President in 2016 by none other than Barack Obama—there would be little left for her to prove. Whatever happens this summer, her place alongside Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, and Abby Wambach on the Mount Rushmore of women’s soccer is secure. The only question for the sculptor will be on which of Lloyd’s shoulders to put The Chip.

It’s The Chip that has fueled Lloyd’s implacable drive to achieve greatness in the eyes of the soccer world. It’s easy to envision her in, say, 10 years, at a testimonial match in her honor, standing at midfield and savoring the chants of “Carli! Carli!” that echo around the stadium. The crowd quiets down when she reaches for the microphone, a sly smile forming on her face. “I’d just like to thank,” she begins, “all the people who said I wasn’t good enough … ”

I first felt the relentless power of The Chip in 1996, when I was coaching a New York City u16 girls team in a regional tournament outside Philadelphia. By the rotten luck of the draw, we found ourselves in the same bracket as the Medford Strikers, a nationally ranked powerhouse from South Jersey. Their star was a 14-year-old all-action center mid who had recently strutted her precocious skills trying out for the Olympic Development Program. When she didn’t make the final cut, she was devastated—and furious. It would be the first snub of Lloyd’s celebrated career as well as the harbinger of doom for my team that day. We were about to pay dearly for the sins of those clueless ODP coaches.

More than two decades later, I take a small measure of comfort in the fact that our team of plucky but overmatched Manhattan schoolgirls held off Lloyd’s offensive onslaught four minutes longer than Japan managed to do in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final. Lloyd needed a whole 20 minutes to complete a hat trick against us before her coach mercifully subbed her out. I remember being surprised at the less than effusive reception she received from her teammates as she walked off the field—just a few perfunctory high-fives, and that was it. It was my introduction to the disparate sides of Lloyd, a contrast that would only become more pronounced as she rose through the ranks of elite soccer.

There was Lloyd the Avenger, hell bent on dishing out payback to the naysayers, and Lloyd the Almighty, so supremely confident in her talent that she felt she knew better than everyone else, including her teammates and coaches. Is it any wonder that her nickname, at 14, was PITA (Pain in the Ass)?

“I wasn’t the easiest girl to coach,” Lloyd admitted to me recently. “I didn’t always follow orders when it came to training or being a good teammate—but I always delivered on the field.”

Praise the Lloyd and pass the trophies.

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When I met Lloyd again in Los Angeles, Nike was unveiling its newly designed uniforms for the U.S. women’s team. The jersey featured a long-awaited—16 years, to be precise—third World Cup championship star that Lloyd all but stitched in herself with her transcendent 2015 hat trick. Despite her usual bravado, it was a strangely fraught time for Lloyd. Only months away from her fourth World Cup, she was struggling to adapt to the cold, harsh, and frankly mystifying reality of her reduced role as a late-game substitute on Coach Jill Ellis’s retooled 2019 squad. And as anybody who has encountered Carli Lloyd over the course of her insatiable 20-year career will tell you, she’d rather eat her shin guards than sit comfortably on the bench during this summer’s jamboree.

“Jill keeps telling me I’m playing well, but it just hasn’t translated to minutes on the pitch,” she says. “I’m fighting every day in training, and my teammates believe in me. They can see my technical ability, my tactical knowledge, my experience, my presence. I’m playing some of the best soccer of my life, but it’s frustrating that I haven’t been able to showcase it in games.”

“I’m glad to see that you haven’t lost The Chip,” I said.

“Yeah,” she laughed. “It’s now on both shoulders.”

Bizarre as it may seem, that double dose of resentment augurs well for the Americans. Just before the 2015 World Cup, Lloyd called out the mandarins of U.S. Soccer for promoting the totemic veteran Wambach and the young, telegenic goal machine Alex Morgan as the brand-worthy faces of the USWNT. The unspoken subtext was that recognition should be based solely on what players do on the field, not on how many selfies they’ve posted of their rad tattoos or fabulous celebrity friends. The magazine covers and endorsements would eventually come with that glorious performance against Japan, capped off by a shot so ridiculous that it was even beyond the otherworldly powers of a certain Brazilian. Pele’s gasp-inducing lob from the halfway line in the 1970 World Cup final trickled a foot wide. Lloyd’s floated over the frantically backpedaling Japanese goalkeeper and skimmed the left post before rebounding straight into women’s soccer folklore.

The enormity of That Goal manifested itself in Lloyd’s primal scream of joy, A scream that for a fleeting instant seemed to exorcise all the perceived injustices of the past—getting snubbed by ODP at 14, cut from the u21 national team, scapegoated for the U.S. loss in the 2011 World Cup final after ballooning the decisive penalty kick.

Now at last Carli Lloyd had her redemptive moment, and it was only fitting that she would share it with her best friend on the team, the maverick goalkeeper Hope Solo, who sprinted half the length of the field to bear-hug her. “Neither Hope nor I were afraid to speak our minds,” Lloyd says, “and I don’t think that sat well with some people in U.S. Soccer.” Solo ultimately blew up her career with a series of off-field incidents and her now notorious response to the U.S.’s stunning loss to an overly defensive Sweden in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals. She famously dropped the C-word, calling the Swedes “cowards.”

Lloyd’s fierce “heat of the moment” defense of Solo didn’t exactly make her Ms. Congeniality among her teammates. “With Hope gone,” Lloyd says resignedly “I guess I’m now the black sheep of the team.”

Once a PITA, always a PITA.

Lloyd admits that she’s not the same player the world saw in 2015, when everything pivoted around her as if she had ball bearings in her boots. At 36, she no longer runs the game; she snipes at the edges of it as a backup striker to Morgan. The explosive bursts and cold-eye finishing that made her the most devastating attacking midfielder on the planet have waned with age, and there’s no place for her in the high-rev central midfield that Ellis has rejiggered to maximize the speed, physicality, and creativity of players like Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, and Rose Lavelle, who are a decade younger.

It would be a stretch to say that Lloyd has made peace with her reduced role, but she has adjusted to it with the single-minded ferocity that has long been her calling card. Under the gimlet eye of her personal coaching guru, James Galanes, she’s spent months recalibrating her game, becoming increasingly comfortable playing with her back to goal and reinventing herself as a target striker in the box.

“I feel like I can have a big impact on this team wherever I play,” she says. “My self-belief is stronger than it’s ever been. Maybe I can’t rely on muscle memory like I once did. I’m not going to get behind defenses with speed like Alex [Morgan] or Christian [Press]. My runs have to be smarter, but I’m still good enough to be on the pitch.”

Last year she produced a welcome reminder of her old killer self when, in a rare start, Lloyd notched her eighth international hat trick. Granted it was against Concacaf minnow Panama, but it was still life-affirming to see Lloyd in full beast mode, whether soaring over the defense to nod in a pair of goals or rolling three players in the box with an ankle-breaking step-over before burying the ball with her right instep high into the net. Clearly, the craft and intensity are still there, but so too, her detractors say, is her hubris.

Which is why some U.S. fans would like to see her go gently into that good night and make way for the emerging core of young, dynamic talent. Lloyd will vacate the stage soon enough, but she’s determined to do so on her own terms. Right now, she has unfinished business in France. The once-in-a-lifetime World Cup hat trick will always stand as her magnum opus, but she feels there is another chapter to be written. One more valedictory lap, one more shiny layer to her legacy, one more moment of vindication.

“When you reach the top, there will always be people looking to drag you down,” she says, “but if there weren’t people talking about you, then you haven’t done anything great. I know that when that big moment comes in June, I’ll be more than ready and more than capable of embracing it.”

So Carli Lloyd continues to rage against the dying of the light. And if the wattage has dimmed from her incandescent summer four years ago, it has hardly been extinguished. Not by a long shot. Maybe even one from 50 yards out.


This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of Eight by Eight. As an independent magazine it’s your support that enables us to continue bringing you the stories from around the football world. We hope you’ll buy the issue and join us.
Photographs by Joe Pugliese

 

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