PARIS — It was the opportunity that Carli Lloyd had been waiting for.
The hero of the 2015 world champion U.S. team – named by FIFA as the best player in the world later that year – had been relegated to a new and unwelcome role as a substitute by coach Jill Ellis over the last two years. But there Lloyd was in the lineup for Sunday’s second group stage match against Chile, as Ellis rested seven starters from the side that spanked Thailand last week in the Americans’ opener at this World Cup.
And Lloyd didn’t disappoint as she smashed home two first-half goals in a 3-0 win that sent her team to the knockout phase at France 2019, putting the Americans in position to secure the top spot in Group F unless Sweden beats them in the first round finale Thursday in Le Havre.
It would be too easy to say that Lloyd, now 36 and the oldest player on the U.S. squad, turned back the clock in this match. As she’d been saying in the lead-up to what is almost certainly her last World Cup, she knows she’s still capable of dominating games at the highest level. For everyone else, Sunday was merely a reminder.
“Like I said before – I’m not just making any of this up – this is the best version of me that I’ve ever been playing in my career,” she said afterward. “Unfortunately, only 11 players play on the field.”
Lloyd is as proud as any athlete as you’ll find in any sport. Sometimes, the all-time greats can’t tell – or can’t admit – when they’ve lost a step. But Lloyd, who becomes the first player to score in six straight World Cup matches, isn’t the only one who believes she’s better now than she was four years ago in Canada, when she scored three times in the final against Japan to stake her claim at the top of her sport.
“Carli is a phenomenal athlete and a phenomenal teammate and seeing her journey from the last World Cup and from the Olympics until now has been really inspiring for me,” said fellow reserve Christen Press following the match at Parc des Princes. “Just her work ethic day-in and day-out and then her appetite for this big moment. I think she’s playing as good as I’ve ever seen her now.”
Yet there’s a sense that no matter how well Lloyd plays, the decision to use her as a game-changer off the bench rather than from kickoff has long since been made. Although she nearly bagged a hat trick on Sunday, Lloyd will almost certainly rejoin the supporting cast – perhaps for the rest of the competition – barring an injury to a first-choice attacker.
That speaks to the defending champs’ unparalleled depth. But even if there’s nothing more that Lloyd can do to change Ellis’ mind, it’s not going to stop her from making a case. “I’m trying,” she said. “I’m having fun, ultimately, and I think that’s the biggest thing: just kind of going out there, showing my ability.
“These last three or four years I’ve reinvented my whole game, I’ve become really fit, age isn’t a factor,” she continued, noting that she’s also put in extensive work to fine-tune her finishing. “The pressure really isn’t on me. Maybe the pressure is on somebody else a little bit more.”
She was talking, of course, about Ellis, who admitted that she’s got too many all-world players for too few places on the field.
“Every player wants to play maximum minutes – every player should want that. That’s what you want as a coach,” Ellis said. “The fact that she’s now scored three goals, I don’t think she could be in a better spot in terms of that. But I also know Carli is ready to do whatever it takes for this team.
“It’s a great problem,” Ellis added. “You want to have hot forwards in tournaments.”
All Lloyd can do now is wait for her next chance.
“She was a starter for a long time and for her to be able to keep that going into this World Cup, knowing that she’s not going to be a starter in this tournament probably the whole time – I mean maybe she will, but that’s not how its looking now – for her to keep that mindset the whole time, it just never changes for her,” fellow veteran Megan Rapinoe said.
“That has always stayed consistent about her.”
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