Carli Lloyd was reunited with an old friend Saturday when she clasped the Women’s World Cup trophy she helped win for the U.S. three years ago in Canada.
The reunion was short, with Lloyd carrying the trophy to the stage in Paris ahead of the draw for next year’s tournament in France. But she’s already making plans for the two to get together again in July, when the 2019 tournament finishes in Lyon.
“It’s only fitting to be confident and knowing that we can win,” the U.S. captain said by phone from Paris after Saturday’s draw.
Six months before a big tournament, the proper etiquette is to be humble, praise your opponents and raise both hands to show you’ve got all your fingers crossed. Instead, Lloyd threw down a marker — for the U.S., anything less than another championship would be a failure.
“There’s calmness about this group. We’ve got a mix of very young talented players as well as some of the veterans who have been a part of big world championships before,” she said. “So having the confidence to say that we can win back-to-back just speaks volumes of our team and how successful we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished in these last couple of years.”
Saturday’s draw gave the U.S. its first look at how its path toward that goal will begin. And it’s difficult to see how the draw could have gone better for the defending champions, who wound up in the softest of the six first-round groups, alongside Thailand, Chile and Sweden.
The U.S., ranked No. 1 in the world and unbeaten in 17 months and 28 games, will open the tournament against No. 29 Thailand on June 11 in Reims. The U.S. beat Thailand 9-0 in their only meeting, in 2016.
Next will be No. 38 Chile, a World Cup debutante that played the U.S. twice last summer in California, losing both by a combined 7-0.
The final group-play game will be the toughest. Ninth-ranked Sweden eliminated the U.S. on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics, marking the only time the Americans have failed to reach the gold-medal game. The teams have also met in the group stage in five World Cups, the last coming three years ago when they played to a scoreless tie.
So U.S. coach Jill Ellis, unlike Lloyd, followed etiquette Saturday by taking nothing for granted.
“There is no easy path,” she said. “First and foremost, we have to get out of the group.”
If they do, the degree of difficulty will rise considerably because if the tournament goes to form, the U.S. will play No. 3 France in the quarterfinals in Paris.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to play good teams to win this thing,” Ellis said. “The master stroke here is we’ve got to execute.”
And that’s where Lloyd comes in.
A two-time world player of the year, Lloyd is one of the best big-game performers in women’s soccer history. She’s the only player of either gender to score the winning goal in two Olympic gold-medal games and the only one with a hat trick in a regulation-length World Cup final. (Geoff Hurst had three goals for England in the 1966 final but two came in extra time.)
Next summer’s World Cup will be her fourth and, Lloyd promises, her last. But at 36, the oldest player on the U.S. team is conceding nothing to age.
“Where some players maybe feel their age a bit when they reach this point, I’m actually feeling as good as I’ve ever felt. Explosive and sharp,” said Lloyd, who recently moved from the midfield to forward. “And just from a tactical standpoint, I feel I’ve taken my game to another level.
“I’m that type of person and player that I’m going to fight to the end.”
Just what her role will be in France has yet to be determined. In the last World Cup, Ellis started the 35-year-old Abby Wambach, soccer’s all-time leading scorer, only three times in seven games and apparently has similar plans for Lloyd, who started only once in five games in October’s World Cup-qualifying tournament.
Lloyd’s response? She scored a hat trick in that start.
Asked whether she was OK coming off the bench again next summer, Lloyd, who plays best when carrying a big chip on her shoulder, chuckled.
‘’Of course I’m not,” she said.
“I know that I still have a bigger role within this team. There’s been tons of moments in my career where maybe I wasn’t starting and then all of a sudden I’m plugged in and you have to be firing on all cylinders and be ready to go.
“I’m going to be ready. These are kind of my moments where I like to turn it up a few notches and get it going.”
The last two major tournaments the U.S. won offer examples of that. Lloyd started the 2012 Olympics on the bench but finished the tournament with four goals, including two in a 2-1 win over Japan in the final. And in the last World Cup, in Canada, Ellis frustrated Lloyd by refusing to give her an attacking role in the group stage before unleashing her in the knockout rounds.
Lloyd scored six times in the four elimination games, including three in the first 16 minutes of the final with Japan. If Ellis is smart, and she is very smart, expect her to continue motivating Lloyd by holding out the possibility she’ll spend much of the next World Cup wearing a substitute’s vest.
“I’ve been through it. I know kind of what to expect,” Lloyd said. “There’s no doubt in my mind I’m going to be prepared both mentally and physically.