She wept at first, allowing her tears to soak into the grass at Kashima Stadium, and then she ran, meaning her sweat could follow the same course. Carli Lloyd would literally be leaving everything she had on the field.
Lloyd told us so much in the hour after the United States women’s national team lost its Olympic Games semifinal to rival Canada. She was among the most obviously affected by that defeat because it was not just a lost opportunity to play for a gold medal or to exact revenge in the final against nemesis Sweden. She knew she was departing the sport soon, and this had been her chance to exit at the very top of the world.
Lloyd had been dropping hints into her interviews about the price of playing soccer at an elite level up to and beyond her 39th birthday. She talked about the sacrifices made by those around her, most notably her husband of five years, Brian Hollins, and how it was time simply to experience another sort of life. And still there were many in the soccer media who contended Lloyd never would consent to leaving the national team by choice.
She had displayed such insistence about her place in the game, on the USWNT, in these final few years that it was reasonable to assume she lacked the ability to shut it down. But she will finish this season with NJ/NY Gotham FC of the NWSL and play four fall friendly games with the USWNT, and that will be it.
She ranks among the greatest in the history of her sport. Along with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and a few others, Lloyd is among the rare players to own two Olympic gold medals and two World Cup titles. Her dominance in the latter stages of the 2015 World Cup, leading to her winning that tournament’s Golden Ball and the 2015 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award (above), made it clear she belonged in the discussion with such players as Hamm, Michelle Akers, Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly.
But none of Lloyd’s achievements defined her in quite the same way as her final three years with the national team, when time and circumstance dictated she would be ideal in a “super-sub” role and Lloyd fought tenaciously against that designation and that role. She was as ferocious a competitor as has ever worn the team’s crest.
“Carli Lloyd is a true legend,” USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski said in U.S. Soccer’s release. “Her career was unique, and her success on the field is something all current and future National Team players should aspire to achieve. The way she approached her everyday training and career as a professional is truly impressive, and I’ve been honored to coach her.”
Although there has been a rare example such as Tom Brady in the NFL or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the NBA, almost no one in soccer has played at this level at this age. The sport is so physically punishing, offers so little in the way of downtime, that it steals one’s youth at a faster pace.
Think of soccer’s most prominent players of the past few decades. USWNT career goal-scoring leader Abby Wambach is 41 now. She retired a half-dozen years ago, at the end of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where she started three games and scored once in the seven-game run to the world championship. Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard played his last game in 2016 after an unsuccessful season in MLS. Hamm, considered the greatest of all USWNT players, retired after winning an Olympic gold medal in 2004, at age 32. Cristiano Ronaldo still is a superstar at 36. He’ll have to keep it up until 2024 to prove he’s got the endurance of Lloyd.
Lloyd will finish her career second in career international appearances, behind Lilly, who earned her last cap at 39, and ahead of Christie Rampone Pearce, who played in the 2015 World Cup at 40. With 128 international goals, Lloyd is tied for fifth in all-time, behind No. 1 Christine Sinclair of Canada. Lloyd could break her tie with Germany’s Birgit Prinz and possibly move into fourth place, depending on how productive she is during the four-game farewell tour set for this autumn.
It seems unlikely anyone soon will match Lloyd’s record for delivering in the clutch. The USWNT has won eight major tournaments in its history: four World Cups, four Olympic Games. Lloyd scored the championship-winning goal in a quarter of those (2008 and 2012 Olympics) and delivered a hat trick in the final of the 2015 World Cup. As if to prove she had not lost her touch on the way out the door, she scored the game-winning goal in the bronze medal match against Australia at the Tokyo Olympics.
And yet none of this will define her in the same way as the glare she flashed at a reporter – OK, me – who asked after a pre-World Cup friendly in 2019 about her successful assimilation into a role as the USWNT’s super-sub.
“I wouldn’t say it’s adjusting. I would say it’s trying to earn a starting spot back,” Lloyd told Sporting News. “There’s no adjusting to being a super-sub. There’s grinding every single day while none of you guys are watching. Repetition after repetition of continuously getting better at things I can get better at. I’m going to be hungry to continue to get better. I’m not sitting here and saying I have the game solved and I’m a perfect player.”
She did not start any game of the seven required to win that World Cup, but she entered as a substitute and finished every one. Eventually, she did return to the starting lineup, in part because of her relentless approach to pursuing excellence, in part because the incumbent starter, Alex Morgan, took a break to have her first child. Lloyd started two games at the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, on the eve of the pandemic shutdown. She started seven of 12 pre-Olympic games this year, then three of the six at the Olympics, including the bronze medal game. With five goals, she ranks third on the team in 2021, and she leads in assists with six.
This was the Lloyd who chose to take to the field and run wind sprints following the loss earlier this month to Canada. There still was another game to play, and she was going to be as fit as possible for that. After Megan Rapinoe gave the U.S. a 2-0 lead in the bronze medal game with goals in the 8th and 21st minutes, Lloyd kept pushing and scored to make it 3-1 in added time before the halftime break and again just afterward. The Americans would need all those goals in a 4-3 victory.
“Through all the goals, the trophies, the medals and the championships won,” Lloyd told U.S. Soccer, “what I am most proud of is that I’ve been able to stay unapologetically me.”
The USWNT has never had anyone like her.
If it can find another, how lucky it will be.