JESSE LOUIE/JUST WOMEN’S SPORTS

Carli Lloyd is well known as a player who elevates her game in the big moments. She has a reserve of magic that only comes out when the stakes are the highest, and is the only player in the world who can boast of scoring two Olympic-winning goals in her career, to go along with an iconic hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final. Her numerous accolades, including two-time FIFA Player of the Year, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and two-time World Cup Champion, easily qualify her for the short list of greatest USWNT players ever.

But in contrast to other household names like Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Mia Hamm, Lloyd has constantly been at war for her minutes on the field, her starting role status often ephemeral and uncertain, irregardless of her resume.

Two years into her tenure on the U21 national team, Coach Chris Petrucelli sat Lloyd down and told her he was cutting her from the roster. Fortunately for Lloyd, a teammate’s injury led to her being reinstated a short time later, but the sting from that moment wasn’t as easily remedied.

“I left that meeting absolutely hating him, blaming him, blaming others,” Lloyd admits to her longtime USWNT teammate Kelley O’Hara on the JWS podcast. Her initial response, externalizing the cause of her failure, was typical of a young adult still finding her place in the world. But soon after the incident, Lloyd began working with a new private coach, James Galanis, and a switch was flipped.

“I had to learn how to train, how to become a pro,” she tells O’Hara, “I had to learn that this needs to be a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week job.”

With this new, total commitment to fitness and training, Lloyd dedicated herself to working harder than she’d ever worked before. And after eventually making the senior national team in 2005, she was never cut from the roster again.

Battling for minutes and a starting spot became her next challenge. In 2007, during her first FIFA Women’s World Cup in China, she started all three group-stage games, but then unexpectedly played only limited minutes for the rest of the tournament.

When a coaching change brought Pia Sundhage to the helm of the squad, Lloyd enjoyed a phase of consistency in her starting role on the team, which culminated in the 2008 Olympics, when Lloyd scored the tournament-winning goal in extra time against Brazil to give the U.S. a 1-0 victory and the gold medal.

Even through their 2011 World Cup finals loss to Japan, Lloyd’s starting spot was secure. But leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, things suddenly got shaky. In an Olympic send-off match in Philly, with much of her New Jersey circle in attendance, Lloyd played a poor first half, got pulled at the break and lost her starting spot.

Across the pond, in their first match of the games, a teammate’s injury once again played into Lloyd’s favor and returned her to the field. Rising to the occasion once again, she scored the go-ahead goal in that opening match versus France and later scored both goals in the U.S.’s 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold medal game.

“The minute I got on that field at 16 minutes [vs. France],” she tells O’Hara, “My mindset for that whole tournament was to never give the coaches any ammunition to take me off that field.”

Unless you were living on Mars or were too young, chances are you still remember Lloyd’s iconic performance at the 2015 World Cup. Her hat trick against Japan was equally unbelievable and intoxicating, a pinnacle of athletic excellence which culminated in her stunning third goal from the midfield line.

After winning FIFA Player of the Year, the highest individual honor in soccer, in both 2015 and 2016, making a fourth World Cup team in 2019 at age 36 would have been icing on the cake for just about any other player. After an injury derailed her in 2017, it would have been easy for Lloyd to accept a role as a veteran super sub, especially given her age and injuries, not to mention the ridiculously talented newcomers. Abby Wambach adopted just such a role for her farewell run in 2015. But Lloyd had no intention of the 2019 World Cup being a farewell run. And after coming off the bench for reduced minutes throughout the tournament, while helping the U.S. win its fourth World Cup title, she spoke blatantly about how unhappy she had been throughout the experience.

“When I returned from my injury in 2017, I felt like I had seen the writing on the wall,” she explains to O’Hara, “I was going to be pegged as old and washed up and not good enough. And it just didn’t seem like I ever really had a fair shot at earning a starting spot.”

Unsurprisingly, Lloyd is still not ready to relinquish the reins, and is unabashedly pursuing a starting spot for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. And with new head coach Vlatko Andonovski running the show, she knows anything is possible, including a fresh start at age 38.

“With this team you’ve got to prepare for anything and everything,” Lloyd tells a knowing O’Hara, “You don’t know what’s going to happen. At any moment something can change.”

Whether Lloyd makes the list of the greatest USWNT players ever is really only a matter of how short the list is. But one thing stands out on her application to the club: Lloyd has garnered an incomparable amount of glory on a surprisingly minimal amount of sure footing.

JESSE LOUIE/JUST WOMEN’S SPORTS

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