Carli Lloyd has never made excuses. Or allowances.
That’s why everything in her world is black and white, never gray. You’re either fast enough, or you’re not. You’re either good enough, or you’re not.
You’re either starting … or you’re not.
Lloyd knows she’s good enough to start for the U.S. in this Women’s World Cup. She also knows she won’t.
“Nothing’s really changed since 2005 when I first got on this team,” she said. “I made a choice to be 100%, 100% of the time. That means grinding every single day. That means preserving through challenging situations.”
Like the situation she’s faced with now. After 13 years as a starter for the U.S., Lloyd has been relegated to a reserve role. Last season, two years removed from her second consecutive selection as world player of the year, she started just five times. She has started only once in nine appearances this year.
“Of course I’m not,” she said when asked if she was OK with that.
Age is not a factor. Yes, she’s 36, the oldest player on the team. Yes, this is her fourth World Cup and her 274 international appearances are 111 more than anyone else on the roster.
But that, her supporters argue, has made her wiser, better and more valuable.
“This is the best Carli that there ever has been,” said her personal coach, James Galanis, who has trained Lloyd since college. “Her touches are cleaner, her game sense has gone to an unimaginable level. She’s physically stronger than ever and she has experience that no other player in the world has.
“Sitting on the bench is not something she is content with or OK with.”
But that is where she will be when the U.S. opens its Women’s World Cup title defense on Tuesday against Thailand.
“The only chance that she’ll have to start, it seems to me, is if somebody gets injured or suspended,” said Glenn Crooks, her coach at Rutgers and still a confidant more than a decade later.
Even Lloyd says this is the deepest U.S. team in history — especially at forward, where Lloyd now plays. Alex Morgan will start in the center, flanked by Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe. Behind them are Christen Press and Mallory Pugh.
“Right now Carli is Alex Morgan’s backup,” Crooks said. “So she will go in knowing that that’s her role.”
Knowing it, but not accepting it. That makes her coach Jill Ellis’ not-so-secret weapon. Because the best way to inspire Lloyd is to doubt her.
In the 2012 Olympics, a seething Lloyd was benched for the opening game. When Shannon Boxx went down with a hamstring injury in the 17th minute, with the U.S. trailing France 2-0, Lloyd came on and rallied the U.S. to a 4-2 win. She never saw the bench again, scoring both U.S. goals in a 2-1 win in the gold-medal game to become the only player, male or female, to score the winning goal in two Olympic finals.
In the last Women’s World Cup, Ellis used Lloyd as a deep midfielder in the group stage and again she seethed, eventually confronting her coach. When Ellis unleashed Lloyd in the knockout round, she scored in each of the four games, capped by a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the final.
“Part of her motivation is from her detractors,” Crooks said. “Jill Ellis right now is a detractor.
“She’s pissed,” Crooks added of Lloyd. “You can tell she’s pissed.”
That makes her dangerous. In her only start this year, Lloyd scored twice in the first 19 minutes. In her last three games she came off the bench in the second half to score three goals and assist on another. Her five goals on the season tie her with Heath for the team lead. Only Press has more assists.
Heath and Press have played more than twice as many minutes as Lloyd’s 229.
“That’s the role. Whatever the minutes, it’s about being a game-changer,” Ellis said. “Carli just lives for those moments.”
The moments she really lives for are the ones where she feels she has something to prove.
Four years ago, in the last Women’s World Cup, Ellis benched Abby Wambach, the greatest scorer in international soccer history, for the final three games. Wambach, then 35, quietly accepted the demotion, retiring four months later as a world champion.
Asked what advice she would give Lloyd, Wambach demurred.
“Carli and I, we’re such different people,” she said. “Carli’s one of those players that does not want somebody to tell her what she should do.”
Heather O'Reilly, a teammate of both Lloyd and Wambach for more than 11 years, agreed. Lloyd isn’t going take her benching sitting down, she said, but she doesn’t expect Lloyd to be a distraction either.
“We know that Carli wants to be on the field and that she’s scored a lot of great goals,” said O’Reilly, now an analyst with Fox Sports. “I don’t think it’s news to anybody that she wants to be out on the pitch. [Bu] I think she also loves the narrative that something is against her.
“And, once again, I have no doubt that she’ll rise up and help the U.S. team.”
That too fits Lloyd’s binary view of the world. In sports, you either add or you subtract. You help or you hinder. You’re a winner or a loser.
“I’m a winner,” Lloyd said. “People can say what they want, but at the end of the day, I can help this team lift that trophy in France.
“It’s believing in yourself,” she added later. “If you don’t believe in yourself then you’re never to accomplish anything.”