LOS ANGELES — Carli Lloyd made the most of her first start of 2019, scoring twice and adding an assist Sunday night in the United States’ 6-0 drubbing of overmatched Belgium and, just maybe, giving coach Jill Ellis something to think about ahead of this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
Lloyd was the planet’s best player four years ago. Her 16-minute hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final in Canada clinched the Americans’ third title and turned her into a global superstar — she starred in a Pepsi commercial alongside Lionel Messi last summer — and a household name in her home county.
But the 36-year-old has become more of a supporting player for the U.S. this cycle. It’s not a role the fiery New Jersey native has necessarily embraced. So when Ellis put her in the lineup for Sunday’s match at a rocking Banc of California Stadium —Lloyd’s first start since November, a run of seven games — she took the field with something to prove.
“I’d be foolish not to take this opportunity and try to seize it,” Lloyd said afterward. “People can say what they want but at the end of the day I can help this team lift that trophy in France. And I’m not going to stop until I can do that.”
The underdog role suits Lloyd well. She also lost her place, then won it back, a decade ago after scoring the goal that won the U.S. the Olympic gold medal in 2008. (She helped the Americans to another gold in 2012, scoring both goals in the final.) With her glittering career clearly winding down, this time feels different, however. While Lloyd has insisted repeatedly that she’s in the best shape of her life, she’ll also turn 37 a week after the World Cup ends.
Most superstars’ heads would explode if they were forced to the bench for an extended period as an older player. Asked how she’s been able to stay focused, Lloyd invoked the names of some of the greatest and best-known team sport athletes ever: Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Jordan. It was pointed out to her that none of those icons were mostly coming off the bench in the twilight of their careers.
“They’re just addicted to winning, and that’s no different than who I am as a person,” Lloyd said. “I know I can contribute, I know what I’m capable of. Mentally and physically, I couldn’t have been more ready for this opportunity.”
That much was obvious. Fellow veteran Christen Press, who notched three assists in a rare start of her own, certainly wasn’t surprised by Lloyd’s throwback performance.
“Nobody on our team is surprised because we never doubt Carli’s ability,” Press said.
They never doubt her mental strength, either, not after she was famously shunned by her parents, who kicked her out of their house in 2008 after a falling out.
“I think she’s always had the mentality that she was her own support system,” Press added. “No matter what the circumstance was around her, she always felt like she was responsible and she could control her own destiny. I don’t think that changes.”
Ellis was non-committal when asked Sunday whether Lloyd’s showing might alter how she views Lloyd’s role this summer.
“She’s a game-changer whether she’s on the pitch or coming into the pitch — that’s her role for us,” Ellis said. “That’s why she’s special. That’s what I want to see from her and she delivered tonight. I just think it speaks to our depth and our ability to have multiple players come in and be a difference-maker for us.”
There is a precedent there, too. Abby Wambach, the leading scorer in international soccer history — men’s or women’s — with 184 goals, served as depth forward during the USWNT’s run to the 2015 title.
Alex Morgan, who scored her 101st international goal in the second half of Sunday’s rout, pointed out that the U.S. will likely need every one of its 23 players to contribute if the U.S. is to become just the second nation to repeat as world champions after Germany won it all in 2003 and ‘07.
“It’s just such a long tournament and there’s so many unpredictables with injuries, with yellow cards,” Morgan said. “You have to make sure that every single player is prepared and ready to start or come off the bench.”
Whether she does more of the former or the latter, it’s clear that Lloyd remains a potent and important weapon for the Americans.
“She is a champion through and through and when she is on the field, she is going to terrify defenses,” Press said. “That we know.”
As if Lloyd would let anyone forget.
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