Through the eyes of the American sports fan, obsessed with clean and clear narrative arc, it is maybe better when the body of an athlete begins to visibly break down. In a culture obsessed with seeing the receipts of not only labor, but the toll labor takes on a person, there is some romance in watching a sports career wind down neatly—especially if a person has been great for so long that they’ve flirted with immortality. Think Magic Johnson firing high-arcing three-pointers in the 1992 All-Star Game, slower and heavier than he was in his prime. Or the barely mobile shell of Peyton Manning, dragging himself through the 2015 NFL playoffs because the opportunity to go out on top was glowing on the horizon. Players who clearly don’t have it anymore, digging into the reserves and calling up whatever they have left.
And then, there is the career of Carli Lloyd, who has—quite literally—been at the center of the U.S. Soccer landscape since 2005. Her narrative as an athlete who has shown few—if any—signs of decline is much more difficult to unravel. What to do if a player looks just as sharp as she always has? With the number of on-field miles and minutes she’s racked up over the years, it would seem that, at the age of 36, Lloyd should be entirely wound down or not even making the trip to France at all.
Instead, throughout her career, she’s found ways to channel her competitiveness into smarter play. Making precise runs instead of charging into every run available. Honing her vision and passing, letting the ball do the work so that the legs don’t always need to. Most notably, she’s perfected her inside-the-box ability in front of the goal. But she’s also shown that she still has the ability to be the type of player she’s spent most of her career being: a midfielder who puts pressure on box to box. Who tracks down attackers and runs into the attack with equal ferocity.
Lloyd has five goals in her last three national team games, including two goals off the bench in the second half of a World Cup tuneup against New Zealand. There is no quintessential Carli Lloyd goal, with all of the ways she has sent balls howling through the air or along bowing blades of grass on the way to stretching out the back of a net; there are only types of quintessential Carli Lloyd goals. You have likely seen the type dozens of times: a relentless run into the attacking third, in tandem with teammates, her ability to find the softest space in a defense and wait for the ball to arrive before one-touching it past the outstretched goalkeeper. Lloyd’s greatest skill has always been the way she is able to see the greatest potential for how a play can end up, no matter how that play begins. Soccer is a game not only defined by its scoring, but by all of the small moving parts that both build toward the goal and make the most use of the space on a pitch. Carli Lloyd has excelled at all of those aspects for so long that even now, when she checks in off the bench at the dawn of a second half, she still shifts the pace and urgency with which the U.S. women play.
“This being my fourth World Cup—you throw in three Olympics into that as well; you know that's seven major tournaments that I've had preparation for—and I think with this one, I'm not saying that it's going to be easy, but I think that it's sort of a cruise-control tournament for me,” Lloyd tells me. “I know what I need to do, I know the mindset that I need to have, I know what my body needs.”
It is hard to define what should or shouldn’t be the end of a career when every corner turned opens up to a cleaner beginning. Heading into this year’s World Cup, the U.S. squad consists of a mixture of young and gifted players (Mallory Pugh, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle) and experienced players who know the World Cup landscape well (Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Ali Krieger) or are in the midst of their primes (Julie Ertz, Tobin Heath). Meanwhile, Lloyd is—despite a new role coming off the bench—playing with the same energy, competitive flame and mind for the game that has defined her career for club and country.
“I think this is the best version of me in my career thus far. And I'm the fittest I've ever been, the sharpest I've ever been,” she says. “I think from a tactical standpoint, as far as the way that I'm playing and reading the game and just everything, it's all kind of coming together.”
For many athletes who have spent a life dedicated to a game they love, there is a moment where passion crystalizes into the pursuit for something greater. Carli Lloyd was a teenager in love with a game in 1999 when the terms under which American women who play that game took a major turn.
It happened at the third Women’s World Cup, which was played for the first time in the United States. The energy around the games was palpable—especially around the U.S. women’s team that was overflowing with promise, teeming with players firmly in their primes, seasoned and prepared to avenge their third-place finish in Sweden four years earlier. Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry, among others. They were not just skilled, but also entertaining. Easy to become fans of. When they won they did so in singular fashion—Chastain swinging her jersey from a closed fist, both of her arms arched upward in celebration of the penalty kick that she scored in the final against China to carry the USWNT to victory.
That watershed moment would give the U.S. women’s soccer team a profile that before seemed unimaginable. It would set the stage for the future marketability of American women in the sport, too. But it also set the stakes under which girls like Lloyd would play. She had been there in the stands at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, as the U.S. opened its blistering run through the group stage against Denmark. It was her first time taking in live global action; the USWNT won 3-0 on goals by Hamm, Foudy and Lilly. The decision was made, then, for Lloyd: For country, on World Cup and Olympic stages.
If you are from a place where the streets get quiet at night, save for some wind dancing along branches or insects trying their hand at a small chorus, you might hear a ball banging against some concrete surface. A rattling basketball rim, coughing out an ill-fated free throw. A football, ricocheting off an unwelcoming tire. These, the sounds of kids sharpening their dreams with the tools at their disposal.
South Jersey, where Lloyd grew up, was one of these places. “I remember my neighbors saying, ‘All we could hear is this ball being banged up against the curb,’” she recalls with a laugh. “Obviously curbs aren't super high, so I had to be very precise with it, because if not, then I had to go into the yard and chase the ball.”
She took her cue from the greats. “I grew up watching Michelle Akers, and she was a warrior. In big moments she rose to the occasion. And whether she had to run through a brick wall to bust open her nose or whatnot, she would do it,” Lloyd tells me, before launching into a longer list: Kristine Lilly, Shannon MacMillan and Tiffeny Milbrett. “You know, I think I just liked players who were mentally tough.”
That included icons from other sports as well. “I looked up to Michael Jordan a lot,” Lloyd says. “Times have changed, but I remember Michael Jordan being the standard for greatness. They [would] say, ‘If you're going to beat Michael Jordan, you've got to rip his heart out.’ I wanted that to be true about myself. Even now, I look up to guys like Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant—players who have an inner desire to separate themselves.”
Though Lloyd had a scroll of influences from which to pattern the aesthetics and mental aspects of her game, she still had to learn how to put the pieces into place. In 2003, after she was cut from the U.S. under-21 national team, she considered walking away from the game. That’s when she met James Galanis, a former Australian soccer pro and widely respected coach. Lloyd had immense skill with and without the ball, but her fitness and mental sharpness weren’t yet there. The precise movements, the touches that appear to be second nature now, required extensive honing, training.
“I was super, super competitive and I was talented at a young age. But I didn't really quite understand and know how to use that talent,” Lloyd says. “I was lazy growing up. I wasn't fit. I didn't do all the right things. I pointed the finger at a lot of other people. I didn't look within myself and see how I could get better.”
I remember Michael Jordan being the standard for greatness. They [would] say, ‘If you're going to beat Michael Jordan, you've got to rip his heart out.’ I wanted that to be true about myself—Carli Lloyd
Galanis helped Lloyd build on her bright foundation. She made the U.S. national team in 2005 but was criticized for her inconsistencies, including the number of times she gave the ball away in the middle of the field. Still, she brought a certain flair to the senior national team. She scored four goals at the 2007 Algarve Cup and later started three of the five games she played in during the 2007 Women’s World Cup.
Her legend began to gain traction the next summer during the 2008 Olympics when she connected for two game-winners. The first came in a 1-0 defeat of Japan in the group stage. The second and more notable goal came in a long and messy gold-medal match against Brazil on a field soaked and sinking into the mud—conditions notorious for near-misses and uneven pacing. In the first overtime period, Lloyd fired a shot that dipped at the perfect moment and bounced off a mud patch in front of the goal, spinning past the keeper’s outstretched arms. The U.S. won its second consecutive Olympic gold medal, and Lloyd was named the 2008 U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year. It was a coronation for a moment soccer fans would get used to for the next decade: Carli Lloyd becoming a newer, better version of herself before everyone could finish celebrating the old version.
Carli Lloyd has made a career out of being indispensable due in large part to her malleability. If one style of play isn’t working, she can fold into another one. She has proved to be as comfortable distributing as she is firing shots from distance as she is chasing down the ball in the defensive third. As Lloyd has pushed into her 30s, she’s become especially proficient in the box and in front of the goal, becoming an even more dangerous and creative finisher than she was going into the 2015 World Cup.
To shift one’s mode of gameplay late in a career requires an intersection of work and humility, but it’s something that Lloyd is primed to do. “She’s a sponge that processes information and transfers it into her game like no other player I have seen in over 40 years of playing and coaching,” Galanis says. “Whether it’s making an adjustment to her technical skills or asking her to run in 20-degree weather, she doesn’t sit back and bask in what is happening. She is always prepared to conquer the next thing.”
After 2015 and 2016, USWNT coach Jill Ellis and Lloyd had a conversation in which they laid out a long-term plan for Lloyd to move up to forward. “In and around the box and being dangerous and making runs in behind the back. And, you know, not necessarily having that box-to-box responsibility that I've had all these years,” Lloyd explains. Many players might shy away from such an adjustment. Not Lloyd. “These last four years I've really, really been working on my final surge, you know, cleaning everything up, my back to goal, making runs, being able to thread through balls, being able to get on the end of crosses, being able to finish.”
Still, for all of her team-first instincts and willingness to serve whatever the game needs, Lloyd is a competitor. A competitor who, undoubtedly, has had to hear about the shifts in her play and speculation about what she has left in the tank. This U.S. team is one of the deepest ever. Lloyd is most likely going to spend the tournament coming off the bench. Even with this in mind, she reminds me that there’s a difference between what a player is willing to do and what a player is still capable of.
“Look, if I'm thrown into the midfield, there's no question that I still have the stamina and I still have the ability to play box-to-box midfielder,” she tells me. “I'm prepared to do whatever it takes. Nothing's changed within my approach. And I think that some people might say that it has obviously been a challenging few years, but I haven't gone anywhere.”
One gift of consistent reinvention is having a chance for renewal and longevity. Lloyd has been around long enough to see how the times have changed. How young girls have more women who are dominant and multifaceted athletes to look up to. How young girls have taken to the pitch wearing her number or are practicing long shots from the middle of a soccer field in her honor.
“I've prided myself in being a good role model. I've stayed true to who I am as a person and a player and I've always just wanted my play to do the talking,” Lloyd says modestly. “You know, that's the most important thing. I am who I am because of the person that I am, but I am who I am because of my career and how I've approached that. And I've gotten there through hard work, determination and sacrifice.
“Our team is changing lives, and it's incredible that I can be an inspiration to so many other young girls, and even boys, who are looking to be passionate about how they play the game.”
I've stayed true to who I am as a person and a player and I've always just wanted my play to do the talking—Carli Lloyd
Lloyd has a unique investment and a unique role in fighting for equality in women’s sports, both nationally and internationally. She was a witness to the enthusiasm that swept through the states after the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and she was ignited, in part, by that enthusiasm. Because she’s had such a long career inside of women’s soccer in America, she’s seen the potential and failures, the stops and starts, and the sometimes-glacial pace of a move toward a more equitable playing field.
She has seen firsthand how badly the women’s game needs institutional support. More young women are growing up and playing the game, and only a select handful have been able to compete on a national and international level. “What’s most important to me is that in five, 10 years’ time, all these young girls can have a place to play,” Lloyd tells me. “If they don't have the opportunity to play on the national team, they have the opportunity to play in a league.”
Since 1999, professional soccer leagues for women in America have had mixed success. The Women's United Soccer Association began in 2001 but dissolved just two years later. After that, the Women's Professional Soccer League kicked off in 2009 but crumbled by 2012. The National Women’s Soccer League has been around since 2012, making it the longest-tenured women’s soccer league in the United States. But, much like what happens in the WNBA, players don’t get equal pay when compared to their male peers. The league increased its salary cap per team to $421,500 at the start of the season, putting the minimum and maximum salary figures at $16,538 and $46,200, respectively. For comparison, the lowest-paid player in Major League Soccer in the 2018 season made $54,500. The NWSL has a weekly attendance average of 10,509 and struggles to stay solvent. Prior to this past weekend, the weekly attendance average was just a shade above 4,000. The Portland Thorns, who have the league’s biggest fanbase, played a home game this weekend in front of 19,461 fans, boosting the average significantly. (With the World Cup on the horizon, attendance should pick up.)
“I think that our team has been a great advocate for pushing the sport on because we have continuously fought for equality and really kind of pushed the envelope,” Lloyd tells me. “And I think that it's given other countries and players the confidence to do the same. And now you're seeing more and more support from their federations and their country, and that's ultimately what's making the sport better. If these teams continue to have more resources and monetary value, it's only going to help the game grow. More teams will be in the World Cup, and more teams will have resources to improve. I’m a competitor, so I want every team to be at the highest level possible.”
Going into the 2019 World Cup, the performance of the United States women is once again under the microscope. Not just for the broad idea of country but, very specifically, for the health of women’s soccer nationally and internationally. The USWNT must not just win but be dominant. And not just be dominant, but also be exciting and personable and drum up renewed interest in the sport. Because of the success and consistency of the women’s team throughout the many eras it has occupied, it has often found itself tasked with this kind of labor and pressure. The stakes on the field and off the field are high. It is an unfair burden, one that the men’s team hasn’t had to carry in equal measure.
“We just have to continue the fight,” Lloyd says with a sigh. Her legacy, among so many other things, is linked as much to her greatness as the long-term health and sustainability of the sport and the players playing it.
“I think that we'll potentially have to fight forever. But we have to continue.”
It seems foolish to talk about legacy when someone is as young as Carli Lloyd is, but here we are. Sports warp the way a person looks at age because of how they can so rapidly accelerate the aging process. But, for all of the hand-wringing and bemoaning of Carli Lloyd’s age and abilities, she is still young with a lot of life ahead of her. There is no denying that for much of her playing career, Carli Lloyd’s rigorous labor on the pitch hasn’t exactly looked like hard work. Her movements have always been smooth and effortless, and she is so often everywhere on the field that it becomes expected. Some sports fans like athletes who visibly perform the aesthetics of hard work. Athletes who grimace or bend over with a fistful of their own shorts, heaving deep breaths. Athletes who post all of their workout videos as a reminder that it requires something beyond average human ability to reach whatever mountaintop they’re striving for. Personally, I’m most fascinated by how often Lloyd has pulled magic out of thin air and made it seem like the magic was there for everyone the entire time.
Approaching the back end of her 30s, Lloyd wants some time to revel in the youth she has, in the life she’s managed to build away from the all-consuming nature of the game she loves. “Physically, I probably could do another World Cup cycle,” she says, confidently. “But do I want to do another World Cup cycle? I think that's kind of where it comes down to. And obviously there's things that I want to do with my life, start a family with my husband and just be able to live. This has kind of been my thing and my gig, but I also want to go skiing and maybe ride some four-wheelers and have fun. I never say never, but you know this is probably most likely my last and final World Cup.”
I am thankful for an athlete to exit on her own terms, with her health as good as it can be. There is no denying she deserves a life beyond this one. She’s in rarefied air, playing in her fourth World Cup. She joins an elite group of women to play for America in four or more World Cups: Lilly, Christie Rampone, Scurry, Hamm, Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Wambach, Shannon Boxx and now Carli Lloyd. She is showing up to France with 273 international caps, which is over 100 more than the next closest player (Morgan has 162).
“Carli is the most impactful player the world has ever seen,” Galanis says. “When it matters most Carli has come through. Her career is littered with game-winning goals or assists. She has come up big in the biggest moments for the last 16 years. No player in the world has impacted outcomes of games as much as Carli has.”
The U.S. will begin its journey in Group F against Thailand on Tuesday, followed by matches against Chile and Sweden, respectively. This run isn’t exactly a neatly orchestrated farewell tour, however. Lloyd is still a competitor, whether she’s on the pitch to start the match or coming on in the second half to bolster the offense. She’s not looking to make a performance of her potential exit, and why would she? She doesn’t feel like her body is telling her to stop.
“I feel that I've just kind of had this incline, continuously climbing this mountain, and I don't feel any different,” she tells me when I ask about her future. “I think there's obviously ways that I've kind of managed my body and not pounding it every single day. And I feel that I have the right balance for everything right now.”
The goal I’ll remember most from Carli Lloyd is one that I imagine many people will remember. In the 15th minute of the 2015 World Cup final, with Lloyd having already scored two goals, she gained possession of the ball in the middle of the field, glanced up briefly and then fired a chip shot from the center circle. It was the ultimate heat check, like Steph Curry throwing up a wobbling, off-balance three-pointer from 35 feet after making a couple. The Japanese goalkeeper Naomi Kaihori was caught off guard by Lloyd’s bold attempt and was several yards out of position, further complicated by the fact that the ball hung in the sky for so long on a sunny day that it became one with the light carrying it toward its landing. When the ball went in, gently nudging the post on its way, the game was done. A 3-0 lead isn’t impossible to come back from, but a fourth goal like that one drains the life from an opponent.
I will always remember that Carli Lloyd goal not just because of the boldness in taking it, but because it was a perfect moment of Lloyd doing fast math and then deciding. Seeing the keeper out of place, knowing how the light and shadows were playing with each other on that side of the pitch, knowing she had the leg strength to pull the shot off.
“It was a moment where I was just in the flow. You know when you see all these great athletes that whatever they try, they make. And you know that was just kind of that moment and I wasn't afraid to try it, I wasn't afraid to do it,” Lloyd tells me. “When I was a kid growing up, I'd run out for training and there'd be balls out there and I would take one ball and I would hit it from the midfield. And I would love to just see the ball hit the back of the net.”
Even now, I am hoping that there’s something more. That by the end of this stretch, Carli Lloyd will have forged some other unforgettable glory into the records of American soccer. There is no type for the packaged goodbyes just yet. There’s still a trophy to lift and a generation of players with hopes tied to this moment. Carli Lloyd walks into another season with another chance at permanence.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer from the east side of Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of numerous books, including They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us and, most recently, Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.