Carli Lloyd lives for big occasions. This is, after all, a player who twice has scored the game winner in an Olympic final.
The U.S. international also has been a remarkably consistent performer. If all goes well at this summer's Women's World Cup, Lloyd will likely earn her 200th cap during the tournament, making her the 10th U.S. woman to reach the mark. And she'll do so as one of the team's main attacking weapons, able to punish opposing defenses with a pass or shot or off the dribble.
"I would say that in the pantheon of all of the great goal-scoring midfielders in the world, Lloyd would be the best," University of North Carolina coach and former U.S. manager Anson Dorrance said. "I think she's got an incredibly consistent capacity to create her shot. I think if you get her the ball within 30 yards of the opponent's goal, facing the goal, she can beat a player, and I think she's the best player in the world at striking the ball on frame and finishing it."
Yet despite her success, the spotlight rarely seems to settle on Lloyd, and when it does, it's not for long. Some of this is circumstance. The U.S. team contains some hugely successful players with massive personalities in Abby Wambach and Hope Solo. Then there are marketing powerhouses like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, who have garnered attention for what they do off the field as well as on.
"Obviously, you understand how fickle the American public is," Dorrance said. "But I don't think too many people would say that right now Carli has to genuflect to anyone."
Indeed, but Lloyd plays a part in this as well. She projects a quiet confidence, and insists she's happy to see teammates get recognized. She also possesses a keen understanding for why attention seems to focus on certain players. It doesn't bother her one bit.
"We live in a world where everything is measured on statistics, and what you look like, if you have tattoos, and if you have flashy hair," she said. "My emergence has been slow and steady, I would say. I think I've improved every single year. I keep getting better, I keep getting fitter, sharper, and I'm not stopping.
"I want to build my own unique legacy, one that's a role model on and off the field, somebody that a parent would want their kid looking up to. I think that people are slowly starting to see what I can do on the field and really respect my game, and that's what I want. I don't want to be known for someone that's good-looking. I want to be known as someone who is one of the best midfielders. That's my thing."
Lloyd certainly has a big fan in current U.S. manager Jill Ellis. When Rapinoe was injured earlier this year, Ellis tabbed Lloyd to play out wide, given the player's versatility as well as the danger she creates when she gets the ball between the opponent's midfield and defensive lines.
But Ellis discovered that the team missed Lloyd's presence in the central midfield on both sides of the ball. So Ellis has reunited Lloyd with Lauren Holiday, a central tandem that worked well at the 2012 Olympics. In that instance, Holiday was the one to get forward more often, while Lloyd's job was more defensive. Now the roles are reversed. Holiday has been tasked with sitting deeper, allowing Lloyd to get forward more, though Ellis also lauds the midfielder's ability to help out defensively.
"Lloyd is a critical piece, and it's important that we have her on the field," Ellis said. "No moment is too big for her. She's got all kinds of confidence, which I think is essential. I think that her self-belief and her confidence have been able to sustain her when maybe coaches haven't believed in her or haven't turned to her."
That wasn't always the case. Back in 2003, then U.S. under-21 coach Chris Petrucelli sat Lloyd down for one of those hard conversations that coaches don't necessarily enjoy but know have to be had. He informed Lloyd that he was cutting her from the team.
"I remember saying to her, 'You're really talented, but there are holes in your game that need to be fixed if you're going to be a national team player,'" said Petrucelli, who is now the women's coach at Southern Methodist University. "'At this point, you're not ready, but here are some things you have to do.'"
This is where Lloyd was supposed to react and prove Petrucelli wrong. That would come later. Much later. But in that moment, she didn't want to admit she had become a luxury player whose defensive deficiencies and unwillingness to work off the ball were the primary reasons for her getting cut.
"It was the first time a coach gave me some tough love, and I needed it," Lloyd recalled. "But it wasn't what I wanted to hear. I left the meeting crying and just really upset and just figured I just can't do it anymore. I was hitting that plateau and couldn't find a way out of it. I couldn't get myself mentally there, physically there."
So Lloyd made a decision. She would play out her college career at Rutgers, and then quit. Why bother striving for a spot on the full national team if she couldn't even make the U21s? She went home and told her parents.
Some months later, James Galanis, a youth coach who counted Carli's brother, Steve, as a player, was packing up his gear following a practice for one of his teams near Lloyd's Delran, New Jersey, hometown when he was approached by Lloyd's father, also named Steve.
"The first thing he says to me is, 'My daughter needs you,'" said the Australian-born Galanis, who works as an assistant with the U.S. U20 national team while away from his club duties. "I just turned around, and there was this dad standing there, and I was like, 'Who's your daughter?' He goes, 'Carli Lloyd.'"
Galanis gave Steve Lloyd his card and told him to have his daughter give him a call. Carli Lloyd didn't exactly sprint to the phone to get in touch with him.
"I didn't know what to do," she said. "I had mentally checked out. I was over it, just having fun."
But Lloyd finally contacted Galanis, and he convinced her to come out for a three-day evaluation, and if she didn't like it, she could walk away. The first day was a skill evaluation, one that Galanis noticed left Lloyd "exhausted." The next day was a physical evaluation, and Galanis didn't like what he saw.
"She was very unfit, like very, very unfit, across the board: strength, endurance, flexibility, aerobic power, non-aerobic power, the whole lot," he said.
But where Galanis felt he could help Lloyd the most related to her mentality.
"I discovered a player who was full of excuses as to why she couldn't make it to the next level," Galanis recalled. "She worried about things that she had absolutely no control over, and she had poor training and living habits."
Day three was decision time. Galanis asked Lloyd what her goals were. She responded by saying she wanted to play for the full national team. Galanis said he thought Lloyd could do it, but there would need to be a lot of changes.
"I just said to her, 'The first thing you need to change is your mind. And if you want to play for the full team, this sport has to be No. 1 in your life, before your boyfriend, before your family, before anyone. If I call you at 10 o'clock at night, and you're out with your friends, and I say to you, 'I'll see you at the field in 15 minutes,' you don't tell me, 'Ah coach, I'm with my friends.' You turn around and tell your friends, 'I've got to leave. I've got to go train.' That's the mindset that you need to have. If you do this, you have to promise me right now that soccer is going to be the No. 1 thing in your life.' And she said yes."
Critically, Galanis agreed to coach Lloyd for no charge, and the two went about reconstructing her game. Galanis convinced her that the path to national team stardom was to become a two-way player. Simply sitting behind the two strikers would no longer suffice. He worked on Lloyd's technique and subjected her to a rigorous training program to increase her fitness. Lastly, he worked on her mind to focus on improving her game and thinking more about helping the team.
"It was the first time in my career that I felt that someone believed in me to the point where they could actually get me there," Lloyd said.
The early returns were encouraging. But after a few months came an even bigger test. Galanis told Lloyd to start working out by herself.
"I was like, 'Where's he at?'" she said. "Now I look back and he was teaching me to take ownership, to really embrace that this was something that I need to do on my own. If I'm going to be alone, I'm going to be alone. I'd just put my headphones in and get to it. It was a slow and steady process."
Lloyd recalled seeing the benefits when she rejoined the U21s in 2005, which by that time were coached by Ellis, of all people. But the big payoff came in the 2008 Olympic final against Brazil. It was a game in which the Samba Queens put the United States under immense pressure for much of the match. Only some gritty defending and stellar keeping from Solo kept the U.S. women in the match. But thanks to her improved mentality, Lloyd found ways to regroup and make an impact with a tackle here and an attempt at goal there. Six minutes into extra time, she connected on one of her trademark pile drivers to ultimately earn the United States the gold medal.
With her place in the side cemented, Lloyd looked to be even more impactful during the next World Cup cycle. Instead, she encountered a few potholes. A solid 2011 World Cup was spoiled in the final against Japan when Lloyd missed the target completely during the penalty shootout.
"It was really hard, because that's the last impression that people have of you," she said. "And it was my second World Cup; I wanted to make a statement and I wanted to do well. It was a hard situation, having two major shootouts in one tournament. It starts to play mind games with you, but I missed. I had to get over it. I had to prepare my mind and body to come back stronger and fight harder the following year in the Olympics."
Except that shortly before that tournament. Lloyd found herself benched, when then-coach Pia Sundhage opted for a central tandem of Holiday and Shannon Boxx. Ellis recalled that Sundhage wanted a duo that would take better care of the ball.
Lloyd remembered being shocked by the demotion, though in retrospect she admitted she shouldn't have been. She wasn't focused prior to a pre-Olympic friendly against China. She played poorly, was yanked at halftime for Lauren Cheney, and her spot was lost.
"I learned that I can't switch off, that I've got to put my foot to the pedal and never take it off," she said.
Lloyd didn't have to wait long to get redemption. Boxx was injured just 16 minutes into the tournament opener against France, and Lloyd orchestrated a comeback from two goals down and scored the game winner.
"When Carli came into the France game, it wasn't quite the middle finger, but it was a big, 'Don't underestimate what I can do,'" Ellis said.
Lloyd was ever-present for the rest of the tournament and went on to score both goals in the final against Japan. That she finished the tournament in the strongest way possible wasn't an accident.
"Every year I keep layering on the same amount of fitness," she said. "It just keeps getting more and more. This is why we train and why we play. In those one-off games, everyone can do those, but you put together a six, seven-game tournament, the strong survive. For me to still feel good from beginning to end, that's a testament to how I train and what I do."
It has been a progression that has lasted more than a decade, and Lloyd is showing no signs of easing up.
"Awhile back we thought that this was about the time [to retire], but it doesn't look like it," Galanis said. "It would be stupid for her to quit right now. She's just getting better. She's got another cycle in her after this one. There's no doubt. She didn't just improve her weaknesses. She turned them into strengths. That's the highlight of her game now; her work ethic and her mental toughness on the field and her discipline off the field. That's why this girl is so special."
Now, like many of her U.S. teammates, Lloyd has the opportunity to win the one major honor that has eluded her so far: the World Cup. Her responsibilities have increased as well, with Ellis naming her captain on those occasions when Wambach and Christie Rampone aren't on the field.
"It's definitely pressure, and obviously we know what's riding on this tournament," Lloyd said. "We obviously haven't won it in 16 years, so we understand that, we know that, I know that. But I think it's good pressure. I think it's exciting. I think that we can really make history by going here and winning it. I think it would be an unbelievable accomplishment in the sense that the competition is really hard. No game is going to be easy."
But Lloyd is ready to face those obstacles. Her whole career has been pointing toward the opportunity to win the World Cup. And she's prepared to take on as big a role as the team needs.
"I don't want to be remembered for maybe having a couple of goals in an 8-0 game," she said. "That's not satisfying. It's those moments when everything is on the line and someone needs to show up in a big moment. I prepare my mind and I prepare my body to be ready for those moments. And I think it's just what I do. I live for those moments."
If Lloyd can deliver this summer, perhaps the spotlight will stay on her a little longer.