For Carli Lloyd there’s only one acceptable result for the U.S. in the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off next month in Canada.
“Anything but first place,” she said, “is definitely a failure.”
If that sounds like the bar has been placed high, it’s only because Lloyd and her teammates have been slowly pushing it up. Eight years ago, in Lloyd’s first World Cup, the Americans finished third. Four years ago they made it to the final but lost to Japan on penalty kicks.
There’s an obvious pattern there. Yet it’s one Lloyd and her teammates look back on more with disappointment than pride.
“In 2011, we really thought that was our time. But it wasn’t,” Lloyd said. “We have a lot of players who were part of that day and we all know how that feels. It didn’t feel well.”
For the U.S. to erase that feeling this summer, Lloyd will have to play a big role. On a team of prolific scorers, she may be the most dangerous — and the most clutch — having produced all three U.S. goals in the last two Olympic gold-medal games, leading her team to two championships.
“She’s proven that she can deliver,” Coach Jill Ellis said of Lloyd, who had the most productive season of her career last year, leading the U.S. in goals (15), assists (8), starts (23) and minutes played (2,043).
“She thrives in big moments,” Ellis added. “She thrives in pressure.”
A two-time all-state high school player in New Jersey, Lloyd says she embraces the challenge of having the ball at her feet with the game in the balance.
“There’s no greater feeling than stepping out on the field when everything’s on the line and … we need to win,” she said. “That’s kind of my moment to shine.
“When others are tired, when others may not be feeling the greatest, that’s when I say to myself, ‘All right, I’m rolling up the sleeves. Warmup’s over. Now it’s go time.’”
It wasn’t always that way, though. Success came so easily for Lloyd in high school and in college at Rutgers, she became lazy and rarely played at full speed. As a result, she was cut from the under-21 U.S. national team.
Depressed, she was about to walk away from the game when her father introduced her to James Galanis at the Universal Soccer Academy in New Jersey.
“She was lacking a lot of different things,” said Galanis, who trained Lloyd six hours a day for six months — much of it for free. “She was basically a kid that was able to conquer all of her challenges just through sheer talent. And then when she reached the top and went into the under-21s, everybody was talented.”
Galanis polished Lloyd’s technical skills and changed the way she played tactically. He built up her endurance and strength, mental and physical.
“When I got her, she had excuses as to why she wasn’t reaching that next level,” he remembered. “And I made it clear to her that there are no excuses.”
Lloyd, 32, still works with Galanis, and calls him the biggest influence of her career. Ellis, who once coached the U-21 team, now lauds Lloyd’s mental strength and consistency and considers her a team leader — even giving her the captain’s armband on occasion.
“Her spirit,” Ellis said, “is phenomenal.”
Her game has gone from uninspired to unstoppable, with Lloyd making more starts and playing more minutes than any U.S. field player over the last five years while scoring 41 goals, third on the team behind Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Lloyd’s 63 career international goals are the most by a U.S. midfielder.
“She’s now the best scoring midfielder in the world. And maybe that we’ve ever seen in the women’s game,” former U.S. national team coach Tony DiCicco said. “She has a special quality.”
Lloyd has become a mainstay of a U.S. midfield in transition, though much of it has gone unnoticed outside the dressing room of a team chock-full of marketable and popular players such as Wambach, Morgan and goalkeeper Hope Solo.
For that Lloyd is accepting, if not completely understanding.
“We’re all human and we all would like to get recognition,” she said. “I’m not a flashy player who’s got a different hair color. It is a little tough.
“The world we live in these days, it’s about stats. It’s about looks. But at the end of the day I’m doing something that I love. And I know that people are realizing what I do.”
For those on the U.S. squad, there’s one thing still left to do, and that’s win a World Cup — something the U.S. hasn’t done in 16 years. This summer figures to provide the last chance for Lloyd who is one of 10 U.S. players who will be at least 30 on the day of the tournament final in July.
“For some people, this is it. This is the last go-round,” Lloyd said. “We’ve got to just capitalize on this one.”