There are two things you should know about Carli Lloyd. The first is, she’s a very, very good soccer player.
The second is she’s even better when she’s angry. And Lloyd was very, very angry last year.
“I don’t think I will ever be happy with how I was treated between 2016 and 2019,” Lloyd wrote in an email interview last week. “I was in the best form of my career but was told I would not be a starter no matter how well or how hard I worked at training or how many goals I score.
“Listening to people label me as too old and that I was better as a super sub was difficult since I knew this was not the case.”
As she has done so often in a 15-year international career, Lloyd seethed in private and proved her doubters wrong in public. Despite coming off the bench a career-high 14 times, she led the U.S. national team with 16 goals — one every 60 minutes of playing time — in helping the Americans to a second straight Women’s World Cup title. She had three goals in the finals in France, three behind the leaders, but in far fewer minutes.
The challenge now is to keep that fire burning through this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, where the U.S. could become the first country to win World Cup and Olympic titles in consecutive years.
The CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament begins Tuesday in Texas and if the U.S. finishes in the top two in its four-team group — which includes Costa Rica, Panama and Haiti — it will advance to the semifinals Feb. 7 at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson.
The final will be played Feb. 9 in Carson. The finalists will advance to Tokyo.
In the past, U.S. coaches have tried to manage Lloyd, keeping her on edge and building up that chip on her shoulder. And it worked: Lloyd is a two-time FIFA world player of the year as well as a two-time World Cup and Olympic champion. Mia Hamm is the only other player, male or female, who can say that.
But Vlatko Andonovski, who replaced Jill Ellis as coach last October, said he plans to let Carli be Carli.
“Carli plays well when she’s comfortable and uncomfortable. We’ve seen her in lots of different stages and we’ve seen her score goals in every stage,” he said.
Andonovski is part of the reason Lloyd is preparing for an Olympic tournament that won’t begin until six days after her 38th birthday. The timetable Lloyd and James Galanis, the personal coach she refers to as her guru, originally mapped out called for her to retire after the last Olympics. But when Lloyd scored a hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final and won consecutive player of the year awards, they extended that through last summer’s World Cup.
Anything beyond that would depend on who the coach was. And when Andonovski, who coached Kansas City to two NWSL titles, was named as Ellis’ replacement, any talk of retirement was put away.
“I am honestly not thinking past Tokyo,” she said. “I am living in the moment and enjoying it one day at a time. The appointment of Vlatko has given me an extra injection of confidence. I feel energized and enjoying the new approach.”
It also helps that Lloyd is starting again. After being moved from the midfielder to striker, Lloyd played behind Alex Morgan, who started all but two of the 35 games she appeared in the last two years. With Morgan out on maternity leave until at least Tokyo, Lloyd is now the first-choice forward.
And Andonovski said that might not change even when Morgan returns.
“I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to that,” he said. “The easiest way to answer would be the best ones will start.”
And with all due respect to Morgan, Galanis said he knows who the best one is.
“If Carli relied on physical tendencies like speed and endurance, I would be hesitant to say she can keep going. But as Carli has gotten older, she has matured into a player that relies on her tactical thoughts,” he said. “She has an extraordinary ability to read the game.
“She is wired to win. A player that thrives in pressure, invites challenging situations and rolls the sleeves up and [is] ready to fight toe to toe until the end. That’s who Carli has become and that is why she is different.”
Which brings us to a third thing you should know about Lloyd: She may be the best big-game player in soccer history. For sure she’s the only player, male or female, to score the deciding goal in two Olympic finals, winning gold for the U.S. in 2008 and 2012. And she’s also the only player of either gender with a hat trick in a regulation-length World Cup final.
That’s a resume she can add to this summer — and beyond, depending on how long she decides to keep playing. After that, she said, it will be up to someone else to write the final chapter of her career.
“I’m not sure how I will be remembered. I haven’t really sat back to think about that,” she said. “Since Day 1, I have gone to work and emptied the tank every single day. In professional sports you can’t live in the past. You must always keep pushing on to be better.
“In our case it has always been a cycle of preparing for a World Cup or an Olympics, so reflecting on what I have done has never been something I [did]. How I will be remembered will be up to those that have watched me play. They will determine how good I really was.”