The incredible drive behind Carli Lloyd's quest to remain the world's best

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Carli Lloyd
Carli Lloyd returned from a knee injury in a July 9 friendly vs. South Africa. (AP Photo)

That her life would be forever changed didn’t dawn on Carli Lloyd for a good while after the 16-minute, three-goal outburst that made the United States the 2015 Women’s World Cup champions.

She had already scored the winning goals in two Olympic finals, and she’d been the USA’s unheralded midfield captain for years, making the difference on both sides of the ball. Yet she’d gotten little recognition for it from casual fans or the mainstream press. So she could be forgiven for thinking that a hat trick in a World Cup final wouldn’t move the needle.

Within an hour of the game, she called James Galanis, her personal trainer, mentor and soccer guru, whom she credits with turning her career around when it flagged after college. She asked him when they’d be training.

“It’s just who I am, it’s how I’m wired,” Lloyd recalled recently. “I’ve never wanted to become complacent, to rest on what I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished.”

She’s achieved a great deal. In addition to those two Olympic gold medals and leading the U.S. to its first World Cup title in 16 years by also scoring the game-winners in the quarterfinals and semifinals, Lloyd has bagged an enormous 88 international goals in 224 national team appearances. And she’s done it while also contributing endless toil in shielding the defense.

Lloyd is the world’s most multifunctional player, acting both as the U.S.’s defensive enforcer — “I think it’s great when people fear me on the field,” she says — and, since Lauren Holiday’s early retirement, the chief creator of its offense.

“She’s very complete on both sides of the ball,” head coach Jill Ellis says. “Her willingness to track back and defend sets the standard and it allows us to compensate for areas where we need to maybe strengthen. That’s been the great thing about Carli — from day one she’s always said, ‘Whatever this team needs.’ ”

Carli Lloyd
Lloyd remains the USWNT’s offensive catalyst. (AP Photo)

As Lloyd goes, so for the most part goes the rest of the team. So when she had a slow start to the World Cup, it was unsurprising that the Americans, as a whole, did as well.

In January came the ultimate recognition, after she’d already been the World Cup’s top scorer and player of the tournament. Lloyd was named the FIFA World Player of the Year.

“Being in Zurich at the Ballon d’Or [Award Ceremony] just inspired me to want to be back there,” Lloyd says. “And that’s what keeps me going. I have four more years left. I know that I can keep getting better, that I have things to work on.”

She wants to play through one more cycle after this one — another Women’s World Cup, another Olympics after the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil, where the U.S. will pursue a fourth straight gold medal.

But the year leading up to these Olympics has hardly been usual for Lloyd.

Once the ensuing mayhem ended from winning the World Cup — the talk shows, the victory parties, the ticker-tape parade — what she craved, above all, was normalcy. To return to the drudgery that had gotten her to where she was. To continue pushing further, harder, higher.

But her beloved routine was cannibalized by the success it produced. From last summer until well into this spring, Lloyd was overwhelmed with the upshot of those three goals — her new status as a mainstream superstar.

“Life has been tough,” she says. “It’s been challenging.” But not in a bad way. “It’s been very good, very humbling. I like to think of it as those 16 minutes was 13 years of just busting my butt when no one was watching. Ups and downs, struggles, just really not getting the credit I deserved I feel like.”

Since then, she’s been doing interviews, speaking to her agent, scheduling shoots and appearances and other assorted spoils from her new level of fame. Lloyd figures she picked up at least eight new endorsements after the World Cup, although there are so many she isn’t entirely sure. Not all of them have been announced yet. That’s like having eight new employers, who require long shoot days and for you to show up to things. So she’d sleep little and fly a lot, hopping around the country from one obligation to the next, while also turning out for her National Women’s Soccer League team, the Houston Dash. “And then I’m trying to find a window in the day to cram in a workout,” she says.

“I’m a person who likes order,” Lloyd adds. “I like my routine to be there. I get up, train, do whatever. And all of a sudden, that order just wasn’t there. I look at my week, I’m in New York, I’m in L.A., I’m over here, and when am I in New Jersey so I can train? And when I’d be in New Jersey training, I wasn’t there. But I had to take full advantage of the situation. You obviously can’t ride that wave and be at the top forever. Eventually you come crashing down and you’ve got to work your way back up again.

“It was really good and I had to take full advantage of it,” Lloyd continues. “It was one of those things where I just had to reap the rewards. Because, you know, that’s future. You know, as a female soccer player, we’re not making millions and millions of dollars. And you have to take full advantage. It was hard. I had my moments where I was like, ‘I can’t keep going at this speed.’ I’m juggling friends, family, fiancé, national team, club team, my agent.”

Speaking in April, Lloyd said it had taken until then for her to feel refreshed. “I learned a lot,” she says. “But I also feel like these last couple of months I was just mentally zapped. And the game of soccer is all mental.”

All of it just wasn’t her. Save for the big engagement ring on her finger, she’s about as no-frills as can be. It’s the New Jersey in her, perhaps. If she had it her way, she’d train, play and repeat.

“I’m a homebody,” she says. “I love to be home, in my environment, hang out with my close friends and family, be with [fiancé] Brian. I have a small bubble of people that are my support system. There’s not much free time.”

She even told her family and Brian not to come to Canada last summer for fear that they would divert a fraction of her focus.

“It’s something that I’ve learned that it works not to have people there,” she says. “I’m not superstitious. I’m here to do a job. I’ve waited four years for this moment. It’s two weeks of my life, to win something so important. By having people there, it’s not to say that they’re a distraction, but I’m unconsciously thinking about what they’re doing, if they need tickets.”

At the 2007 World Cup, her family came and the U.S. was eliminated in the semifinals. In Beijing in 2008, nobody came and they won Olympic gold. In 2011, her family and Brian came and they lost the World Cup final on penalties. In 2012, nobody came to the London Games and they won. So in 2015, nobody came, either. Or so she thought.

Her aunt and two cousins went to the World Cup final on the sly without telling her. Brian was going to join them, but he chickened out. So Lloyd’s best friend went in his place.

“He was nervous that if we lost we may not get married,” she says. “Brian knows he can’t come to anymore events.”

Now come the Olympics again. Brian and her family probably won’t come. And then Lloyd will get married — assuming he doesn’t come anyway and jinx it — and then she’ll finally get back to her routine. Unless she once again dominates the women’s game to such a degree that it throws her whole life off kilter.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.