With Game Of A Lifetime, Carli Lloyd Gives U.S. A New Hero

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As the minutes of extra time ticked away Sunday, Carli Lloyd flicked the ball past a Japanese defender, collected it on the far side and played it down the sideline to run off still more time. Then she turned to the referee and raised her arms in the universal indication that it was time to bring the game to a close.

On this particular field on this particular night, one might have thought she would wish to linger as long as possible, to never let the game of a lifetime escape her grasp.

Then again, you don't get many opportunities for a celebration like that which awaited when the whistle finally did make a 5-2 win for the United States official.

Those moments can be a long time in the making.

"I've dedicated my whole life to this," Lloyd said. "And everything [else] comes second. But I wouldn't have it any other way."

In one of the truly remarkable displays in World Cup history, Lloyd not only became the first woman, and the second player, to score a hat trick in a final; she scored her three goals in the first 16 minutes. She closed her scoring binge with a shot she launched just as the ball rolled across the midfield stripe. It wasn't a hopeful lob or lucky chip. It was sent with intent, as if she took umbrage at the idea that Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori would stray to the edge of her 18-yard box when Lloyd had the ball and sight of the goal.

There is nothing Lloyd savors more than a challenge. She seeks them out, perhaps even creates a few when the need arises. But there is no need to seek them on these stages. Lauren Holiday technically scored the decisive goal, but Lloyd's hat trick now gets added to the game-winning goals she scored in back-to-back Olympic gold-medal games.

She is, naturally, the only person ever to do that. The bigger the game, the bigger the player, may be a cliché, but it's one with a lot of evidence behind it for Lloyd, who won the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player and missed out on the Golden Boot as its top scorer on a tiebreaker with Germany's Celia Sasic. Lloyd scored all six of her goals in the knockout rounds, including Sunday's hat trick on a perfectly timed run on a corner kick, good fortune off a deflection on a free kick and the long-distance blast.

"She's just born to be here and to play that role and to carry this team," U.S. defender Ali Krieger said. "I always say that she's the engine of our team. And I mean that 100 percent. Day in and day out she works her ass off. She proved it today. ... She was the answer today."

It was only appropriate, then, that the first thing Lloyd said in the postgame news conference, by way of crediting coach Jill Ellis and her staff for a championship plan, was to note the team never lost its belief, even when others were "worried" about its performance early in the tournament.

So much for the bubble she and the rest of the team professed to reside within throughout the tournament.

"I think she's always had a chip on her shoulder, always something to prove," Ellis said. "I think that is where she operates best. I think a couple of players are wired that way. But Carli, nothing has ever come easy for her. She's always been kind of on the periphery of being a well-known part of this team. I think over time, now, people see her worth."

Or as U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said of a new generation of potential soccer players and fans who watched this game, they have a "new hero" in Lloyd.

That for someone who has played more than 200 games for the U.S. and is two years younger than Abby Wambach, the legend whose World Cup career came to a conclusion when Lloyd transferred the captain's armband to soccer's all-time leading goal scorer when the latter entered as a sub. Lloyd doesn't seem to be leaving anytime soon.

Ellis knew what she had with Lloyd. So did Gulati. So did plenty of fans. But a lot of people didn't. Not like they know with Wambach or Alex Morgan.

Not all of that profile was of others' doing. Lloyd has always been open about the changes she needed to make early in her career, when she got by on talent alone as a star in her home state through college at Rutgers, not exactly North Carolina, Notre Dame, Portland, Santa Clara or UCLA in the history of the women's game. She credits one youth national team coach, Chris Petrucelli, with delivering a wake-up call, and her longtime trainer, James Galanis, with producing the player we see now.

But when Ellis got Lloyd as a raw player still in the midst of making those changes on the under-21 national team many years ago, she said she walked over and told Lloyd she was one of the best players she had ever seen. That wasn't all that long after a certain 1999 World Cup. Some years later, coach and player brought home another one.

"Her and I have always had a good connection because we've always been straight up with each other," Ellis said. "So to see her [then], did I think she had that in her? Yes. But as she said, she just got more and more focused on what she needed to do to be better and take her game up. Her fitness equated to mobility which equated to her running at players. I think she locked on and she did the things she needed to do."

You need opponents to keep doing those things year after year. Lloyd talked Sunday about a particular training session at home in New Jersey, running sprints on an otherwise empty field, and visualizing herself scoring not just a hat trick but four goals in a World Cup final. But that gets a person through only so many sprints on lonely fields.

There need to be opponents, invisible though they may be, to keep pushing and to be able to rise to the moment as Lloyd continues to in big games.

"I wish I could bottle her up and give a little dose to the entire squad," U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg said. "She's just so clutch in such opportune moments. It's really wonderful to watch, to be a part of."

Arguably no player's movements on the field were as closely tracked in the World Cup as Lloyd's. Her position on the field was the equivalent of a mood ring for American fans and observers. The more time she spent pushing forward -- which she began to do in the first knockout game against Colombia in which she scored her first goal and then took to new levels in the quarterfinal against China -- the happier everyone was with how the team played.

The only people who didn't obsess about it, at least if you believe Krieger, were the players and coaches. Lloyd, she said, would have played center back if asked.

Which isn't to say her teammates, more than anyone, fail to appreciate what she does with freedom in an attacking midfield role.

"Playing in the 10 position, we need her to play there," Krieger said. "We need her to play in a position where she's really active, where she gets the ball a lot, and she can just take people on and create chances and take people on. That's what she does."

Lloyd was so good, in fact, that she had a hand in not one but two of the success stories in this tournament. In addition to her work with her own team, Lloyd influenced several Colombian players who trained with her, most notably that team's young star, Yoreli Rincon.

That is not unusual. Ellis said she routinely pushes young players to Lloyd, or pushes the veteran toward the newcomers, in hopes they will follow her single-minded lead.

"She's a role model for a lot of our young players," Krieger said.

That includes Morgan Brian, the young, emerging star whose ability to hold her own helped free Lloyd to go forward when Ellis changed the lineup and formation.

None of this came easily. Of all her many skills, work-life balance may still be a work in progress. When it's time for soccer, it is time for only soccer. Lloyd said her fiancé would have been in the stands Sunday, had planned to be there for the final, right up until she put a stop to it. She does not want distractions.

"That's why it's so demanding mentally," Lloyd said. "I feel more mentally zapped right now than physically. That's what it takes."

The challenge now will be to find the doubters amidst a sea of universal adulation and acclaim. Lloyd said during qualifying she hasn't always received the recognition commensurate with her production for the national team. That is about to change.

Surely someone who so loves to be doubted will struggle when no one does.

Oh wait, that sounds a lot like a challenge.

"We just wrote history today and brought this World Cup trophy home, which is unbelievable," Lloyd said. "But at the end of the day, I think I've pushed on my status a little bit and I have to stay up here.

"So it's not right away, but I'll be back to work and back stronger than ever."

There is always another World Cup to win. And yes, she mentioned that, too.