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Carli Lloyd Was A Self-Contained Superstar

Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

Carli Lloyd announced this week that she will be retiring from professional soccer at the conclusion of the 2021 NWSL season. The on-field accolades that trail in her wake speak for themselves: Lloyd is a two-time World Cup winner, a three-time Olympic medalist, the second most capped player in U.S. women’s national team history, and the program’s fourth all-time goalscorer. It’s hard to remember a time when Carli Lloyd was not representing the U.S. on the grandest stages; at 39, she’s been a major figure in the sport for over 17 years.

Her career spanned the USWNT tenures of four different coaches, two different American professional leagues, and seven different club environments. Her defining feature as a competitor was an uncanny ability for picking her moments. In 2015, pre-World Cup final hat trick, she was described by Kim McCauley as “the weirdest world class professional athlete ever.” Sometimes Lloyd looked like she was coasting in meaningless friendlies, wandering in and out of dangerous spaces and disappearing into the midfield as different teammates took their time in the spotlight. But then, like clockwork, when the moment  called for a big goal in a big game, Lloyd would be exactly where she was needed. 

She scored game-winners in two tightly contested Olympic gold medal matches, one early in extra time against Brazil in 2008, and a brace in regulation against Japan in 2012. Her hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final provided a cushion for Lauren Holiday’s game-winning goal, and the goals themselves were iconic as much for their audacity and vision as for  their competitive importance. There will never be a moment again quite like her half-field dagger in that game—the growing parity in the global game won’t allow it—and it will remain the stuff of legend forever.

That Lloyd’s mainstream breakthrough came in 2015, the 11th year of her USWNT career, speaks to the growing popularity of women’s soccer in the U.S. But it also speaks to the one strength she turned to even when things weren’t clicking: her work rate. Lloyd leaned into the “when nobody’s watching” ethos more than any other USWNT player sharing her era—it’s literally the title of her memoir. She’d train on holidays, and hold herself to an impossibly high standard of fitness. This mentality came with a bit of an edge—she’d occasionally get into touchy exchanges with both fans and the media—and sometimes it felt like the main driver of her intensity was not a desire to be loved, but to prove doubters wrong.

She could be a bit of a shithouser, to put it bluntly. Which is why one of the actual defining moments of her career occurred in 2018, not during a World Cup or Olympics game, but on a muggy night in Florida as a member of the NWSL's Sky Blue FC. Lloyd's Sky Blue FC had not won a single game by the time they took on the Orlando Pride on Aug. 5. Just a few weeks prior, reports had surfaced about subpar living and working conditions at the New Jersey club, raising questions about the team’s leadership, something Lloyd—unsurprisingly—didn’t have much comment on at the time. 

If that Sky Blue season unfolded in institutional quicksand, Lloyd did not have the strength to pull the team out of it herself. She converted less than eight percent of her shots that season, only scoring four goals and notching one assist as a striker. But when the moment came to salvage a point, she had one more thing left to give.

The match was tied 2-2 in stoppage time, and it looked like Sky Blue could at least escape the contest without another loss. Orlando then had a corner kick opportunity as the seconds ticked past the 90+5 mark that Sky Blue struggled to clear. Lloyd, instead of watching the ball go into the back of the net for a soul-crushing 3-2 defeat, palmed the ball away from the goalline, committing a blatant handball that saw her immediately sent off. 

But well-taken penalties in the NWSL are not guaranteed, and the gambit totally worked. Kailen Sheridan would save the subsequent penalty taken by Marta, and Sky Blue would escape Florida having at least survived with a point from which to build. 

That team would eventually get their long-awaited win in the last game of the season, on a game-winner from none other than Carli Lloyd.

While that never-say-die mindset undeniably aided Lloyd in those big moments, sometimes that singular focus brought her deep personal dissatisfaction, and even fissures in her life outside the sport. Lloyd spoke about her time coming off the bench of the 2019 World Cup as a rock-bottom moment, and said that she could barely enjoy the team’s celebrations due to her personal disappointment in her role as a substitute. Afterward, she broke away from long-time trainer James Galanis, and spoke about how she had to repair ties with her family as the pandemic forced her into some unlikely time off.

Though a major figure in the landscape of women’s soccer, Lloyd has mostly stayed out of the USWNT’s participation in various social causes. She referred to teammate Megan Rapinoe kneeling in protest of police brutality in 2016 as a distraction, saying at the time that while she had Rapinoe’s back, “I think it becomes more of a distraction because it gets our coach involved, our support staff involved and we as a team. We as a team have dealt so many things along the way, whether it's off the pitch or on the field. We can handle it. At the end of the day, we're pros. Whatever is going on, we need to forget about it and just play soccer.”

In 2020, after not joining teammates in kneeling upon the USWNT’s return to the international stage after the summer of upheaval that rocked the United States, she repeated a similar refrain of focusing purely on herself. “I’ve been away in my house tucked away in the woods and recovering my injuries, so I’ve kind of taken myself out of the soccer environment for a little bit. It was a good mental and physical recharge for me. But obviously coming back into this team, the beauty of this team is that we stand behind each other no matter what.”

At the Tokyo Olympics, before the bronze medal match, Lloyd did not kneel with either team and the referees as they took a symbolic stance against racism. Athletes in women’s sports are frequently asked unfairly to be role models, but even when presented with basic opportunities, Lloyd never quite rose to the standard off the field that fans have come to expect from those wearing the crest of the U.S. women’s national team.

After the team lost to Canada in the semifinal of that same tournament, Lloyd reacted in the only way she knew how. As Rapinoe faced the media, those watching at home caught a glimpse of Lloyd running wind sprints in the background, after having played the final 30 minutes of the losing effort. After a muted ending to a legendary career, fans were given one final image of exactly who Carli Lloyd consistently turned out to be: an historically great player, giving the last part of herself in the arena she values the most, for an audience of one.

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