Unstoppable Carli Lloyd Just Keeps 'Chugging Along'
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Surely Carli Lloyd can take a breath and relax now.
After she converted the penalty kick that proved the game-winning goal in a World Cup semifinal against Germany, she had to cross Canada one more time for one more game. Nor did she get to rest after an iconic hat trick in the first half of the final against Japan, instead pulled this way and that upon her return to the United States as the face and voice of a team that was one of the sports stories of the summer. That, in turn, gave way to the final weeks of the National Women's Soccer League season with the Houston Dash.
Another hat trick in a United States win against Haiti in Detroit on Thursday earned her only a flight to Birmingham for a rematch three days later in the heat and humidity of what felt more like summer than fall in Alabama, part of the national team's victory tour.
So surely, after another first-half hat trick in Sunday's 8-0 annihilation and with no more games scheduled for more than a month, rest awaits.
Surely, a hat trick of hat tricks earns someone a chance to stop and savor.
"I wouldn't call it time off," Lloyd said of her plans. "I've got another week on the road right now."
Oh well. It beats being bored.
It also beats trying to stop her. Defenders are the weary for whom there really is no rest.
Lloyd's collective outburst in Detroit and Birmingham makes her just the third American player to score hat tricks in back-to-back international games, joining Mia Hamm and Cindy Parlow on that list. In the process, she also passed Parlow to become the sixth-leading scorer in national team history.
She has scored 14 goals in the past eight games.
Only 19 players have scored 30 career goals for the national team, a list Amy Rodriguez joined by scoring in Sunday's rout. Lloyd has scored 31 goals since the start of last year.
"As far as a midfielder getting into the final third, I think she's one of the best players in the world at it," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "It's a comfortable spot. She's fantastic in the air, she's good with the strike, she's good off the dribble, she's good picking up loose balls with just her mentality. She is an out-and-out goal scorer, so I think what we're seeing is just her fitting into a natural position. But I think Carli would be the first person to say none of that happens without the quality of service that she's getting, the timing of her teammates. I think they very much put it in there for her, and she does the business."
To that end, no, Lloyd didn't score beautiful goals Sunday. The first came by way of Alex Morgan's industry, the forward drawing a penalty after being played into the box by Lloyd, who then also converted the spot kick.
The second came when she was in the right place at the right time when a cross deflected off Crystal Dunn and landed at her feet in front of an open goal. The last was in large part the work of Megan Rapinoe, her long free kick finding Lloyd's head on a ball that looped toward the goal and left the keeper unable to do anything but push it off the underside of the crossbar.
It isn't Lloyd's job to score aesthetically pleasing goals, although she is certainly capable of doing that from anywhere in the attacking half of the field (just ask Japan). It's her job on this team, playing most often recently tucked behind Morgan's lone forward, to score goals.
"I think over the years, I've created chances but maybe not necessarily put them all away," Lloyd said. "So I think kind of this next phase of my career is to create opportunities and put them away and do whatever I can to help the team. Whether it's a toe poke or a flicked header that ends up going in the back of the net, a goal's a goal."
The three goals Lloyd scored in the opening 39 minutes of Sunday's win mattered only in the sense they rewarded the crowd of 35,753 who turned up and turned the parking lots around Legion Field into something more familiar to football Saturdays in this state (in what must be the first time the words were ever spoken in this place, a tour guide leading some teenage girls in U.S. gear noted before the game in a movie-perfect Southern drawl that people "might not want to see any football today").
In a state where schools such as the Alabama, Auburn and UAB didn't even sponsor women's soccer as a varsity sport regularly until the mid-1990s, the point of playing the game against an overmatched and undermanned last-minute replacement opponent was for the thousands of fans.
The competitive portion of the game was to some degree over before the clock ticked off the first full minute, Rapinoe sending a quick short corner to Kelley O'Hara, who with no Haitian defenders within 10 yards, fired a cross that Julie Johnston finished.
That in some ways makes Lloyd's performance more impressive. She got the entire second half off, along with four other starters, but there was every reason to coast through the first half, too. It didn't even have to be a conscious decision. After months of going non-stop from soccer field to public appearance to interview back to soccer field, it would have been natural to ease from fifth to fourth gear without even realizing it.
Ellis said one of the instructions she gives her players in games like this is to "play like you want to make fans out of people." That's exactly how Lloyd played, not her alone by any stretch of the imagination but her with perhaps the best excuse not to do so.
... To put in back-to-back performances [like she did] with our team, I think she's just a great professional. She's so mentally strong.USWNT coach Jill Ellis, on Carli Lloyd
"It's been remarkable because, obviously, yeah, she's not only played with her club, she's done appearances," Ellis said. "And to put in back-to-back performances [like she did] with our team, I think she's just a great professional. She's so mentally strong. Regardless of the opponent, regardless of the surface, she just takes the same approach. It's a high standard she has for herself and obviously wants to deliver for her teammates."
Lloyd was asked after the game about her "breakthrough" performance in the World Cup. She almost gently, certainly by her standards, corrected the word choice. Without listing her credentials, as someone who made nearly 200 appearances for her country before the most recent tournament even began and twice scored the goals that clinched Olympic gold medals could have, she said she had been "chugging along" for quite some time beneath the radar. She would, she added, continue to "fight like an underdog."
Serena Williams is never an underdog. Ronda Rousey is never an underdog. Lloyd is no longer an underdog.
In the end, the two things that stood out most Sunday involved the team's two best players throughout the World Cup. In one case, Becky Sauerbrunn, increasingly hailed as the best central defender in the world, made her first ever start for the national team as a midfielder.
With versatility important on smaller Olympic rosters, and Tobin Heath unable to play because of an ankle injury, Ellis said she just wanted to see how it went (not surprisingly, Sauerbrunn, who helped set up Lloyd's second goal with a run forward, looked more than capable in her lone half). There was no better indication of how little the game really meant than relocating the world's best defender.
The other was Lloyd doing what she seems to do all the time these days, whether the games mean everything or nothing. If only the Postal Service still delivered as reliably.
"I think that first month [after the World Cup] was definitely a grind," Lloyd said. "And I think even, just now, it's kind of catching up to me. But it's OK. I find time to get rest, and I'm balancing everything and able to still perform and still do what I need to do on the field and do what I need to do off the field, too. It's all good. I can't complain.
"And I'll be ready to train and rebuild again and be fitter and sharper and everything."
In other words, those asked to stop her in the months ahead may want to rest up.