Carli Lloyd has stepped up in Women's World Cup when needed the most

Carli Lloyd was still in high school the last time the U.S. won a Women's World Cup. But she hasn't forgotten the experience.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'This would be a dream come true to be a part of a team like this,'" she said. "Never did I think it was really possible.

"Winning a World Cup would be an absolute dream."

A goal that could soon become reality largely because of Lloyd, who has willed, cajoled and pushed the U.S. into Sunday's tournament final.

After a shaky start in this World Cup, Lloyd has become the Americans' unquestioned leader, a role she never embraced more forcefully than on Tuesday, when she scored one goal on a penalty kick and set up another in a 2-0 semifinal upset of top-ranked Germany.

The U.S., unbeaten in six matches, will meet defending champion Japan in Vancouver on Sunday to decide the title.

However, the Americans couldn't have gotten this far without Lloyd, who leads the U.S. with three goals in the tournament.

"Carli Lloyd has stepped up huge for us," said Abby Wambach.

Four years ago it was Wambach who carried the U.S. to the World Cup final. But this summer, as a part-time player, Wambach has led largely through force of personality.

Lloyd, who now wears the captain's armband, has led in every other way.

And she's done it when the team has needed her most — in the knockout stage, in which she's scored in all three games. The last two goals have been game-winners.

"She's proven that she can deliver," U.S. Coach Jill Ellis. "She thrives in big moments. She thrives in pressure."

This isn't the first time Lloyd has put the team on her back, having scored the winning goal in each of the last two Olympic finals. And she scored five times in the final four games of last fall's World Cup qualifying tournament, capping the most productive season of her 11-year national team career, one in which she led the U.S. in goals (15), assists (8), starts (23) and minutes played (2,043).

The World Cup, however, has been a tale of two tournaments for the 32-year-old Lloyd.

In the group stage she looked lost and distracted. Her passing was horrible, her playmaking nonexistent and her contribution — one assist — negligible.

Part of the problem was her role in the central midfield. Long an attacking player, Lloyd seemed uncertain whether she should push forward or hold back.

But when group play ended so did Lloyd's reserve.

"I know for me, I love to attack," she said after having a heart-to-heart talk with herself. "I need more of that. I need to get the ball, I need to run at players, I need to create stuff.

"I need to find a way to impact the game no matter how it's going."

And as the pressure rose in the knockout stage so did her game, as Lloyd became just the third American woman to score in three successive World Cup games.

So in Tuesday's semifinal Ellis unleashed her, making the biggest break yet from the coach's standard and staid 4-4-2 formation by starting Alex Morgan as a lone striker and freeing Lloyd to step up right behind her.

And Lloyd didn't disappoint.

"With Jill and the coaching staff kind of giving me the flexibility to express myself out on the field, I just needed to deliver. In any way possible," Lloyd said. "Mentally as well. I've just kind of been trained to become a fierce competitor, live for challenges and never quit. No matter what the scenario is."

Added Wambach: "Carli has so much self-confidence in herself. I think she played five different positions [Tuesday]. And those are the reasons that this team is so hard to beat."

Now it's on to the final, the fourth in seven Women's World Cups for the U.S. No country has been in more.

But it's been 16 years since the U.S. won one.

Lloyd had a chance to play for a World Cup champion four years ago, when the U.S. let two leads get away before losing the final to Japan on penalty kicks, turning the dream into a nightmare.

She doesn't intend to let that happen again.

"We didn't come here to just make the final," she said Tuesday. "We came here to win it."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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