Laura Verzi remembers when Carli Lloyd would pack eight people into a run-down Saturn to hang out at 7-Eleven after soccer practice at South Jersey's Delran High. Every so often, some of the girls would have to get out of the car to ride over speed bumps or the trunk would pop open.
Chauffeur to a group of high school soccer players is not the image that first comes to mind when you mention Lloyd. It's usually one of Lloyd as the hero of the 2008 Summer Olympics, when she scored the winning goal against Brazil, giving her team the win in overtime and a gold medal.
But the car in question still runs, and the 28-year-old Lloyd still counts the girls in the backseat among her good friends. Meanwhile, on the field she's fitter, faster, and stronger than ever.
The Delran native and Rutgers University graduate is a much different player from the one the world saw at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. She sees the development as a vital step in her soccer career.
"It was something that I'll never forget," Lloyd said of the Olympics. "I've now moved on, so I've got to put that behind me. I'm climbing for bigger and better things still."
Helping Lloyd become a fitter and smarter player is her longtime trainer, James Galanis, who is also her new head coach with the Atlanta Beat, a Women's Professional Soccer team.
Galanis runs the Universal Soccer Academy in Lumberton and has trained Lloyd since 2003.
"He is like a brother, a mentor, a friend," Lloyd said. "It's been awesome to see how hard both of us have worked to get to where we want. We've both helped each other, and he has helped my career tremendously."
"I asked her what she wanted to do, and she wanted to play on the U.S. women's national team," Galanis said of their first few meetings. "I told her about the sacrifices she would have to make and how hard she would have to work. Since that day Carli's been the most dedicated soccer player that I've ever seen."
Galanis took over the head coaching position for the Beat in October. In December, the Beat acquired Lloyd as a free agent from Sky Blue FC, the WPS team in New Jersey.
"As soon as he was named coach, that's the first place that I wanted to be. Obviously I still had a tough decision with New Jersey, but I think that it's the best decision," Lloyd said.
Before the WPS preseason, Lloyd and four other players headed to Atlanta's training camp with Galanis and worked out together twice a day. They focused on individual skills and ball control, among other things.
"Playing with her every day, she's a really good person to learn from and look up to," said Meghan Lenczyk, a forward from the University of Virginia whom the Beat selected with the 14th overall pick in this year's WPS draft.
Verzi, who has been friends with Lloyd since middle school, was a teammate at Delran before going on to play at Fairleigh Dickinson. She knows the effect the midfielder's tireless work ethic can have.
"That was really motivating for me because I could see how hard she was working, and she moved me to work harder," Verzi said.
But before Lloyd could focus on playing for the Beat in Saturday's season opener, she traveled to Portugal, where the Americans beat Iceland, 4-2, for their eighth Algarve Cup title. Lloyd scored three goals in four games in Portugal, making her the team's leading scorer for the year.
"It is tough to balance so many different teams. I'm not home much, especially this year," Lloyd said. "You just have to embrace it and manage the time well."
The 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, hosted by Germany, will begin June 26 and end July 17. It will be Lloyd's second appearance in the tournament. In 2007, the national team placed third amid coaching issues and controversy at the goalkeeper position.
"It didn't feel like a united team," Lloyd said.
"And now going into this World Cup, I have solidified my starting spot. I'm going in with a different leadership role than I've ever had."
The U.S. women's team hasn't won a World Cup title since 1999, when the team and popularity of women's soccer exploded.
No players from the 1999 championship squad are on the current roster. Lloyd represents the new U.S. national team, one that is young, driven, and not necessarily loaded with household names.
"What they did was phenomenal," Lloyd said of the 1999 team. "It was an amazing accomplishment and was great for women's sports, and I hope that we can get that going again. I wish the media coverage was a bit more. I wish our games were televised a bit more."
Lloyd will be with Atlanta for the Beat's first four games of the season, including three at home in Kennesaw, Ga. Then she will rejoin the national team in preparation for the World Cup with three domestic matches before heading to Austria in mid-June.