If you're watching the United States Women's World Cup team, really watching, Carli Lloyd may be first on your must-see list starting with Tuesday's opener against North Korea in Dresden, Germany.
The midfielder from Delran already may have the signature moment of her career - a game-winning goal in the 2008 Olympic gold medal game. But Lloyd is still searching for higher ground. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage talks about how Lloyd is one of those players who doesn't simply choose the first option - she likes the third option. "She's unpredictable," Sundhage said.
At Lloyd's best, the coach said, "it's almost magic."
But Sundhage was quick to use the words at her best. At times, Lloyd's unpredictability can lapse into inconsistency, Sundhage said.
"Sometimes she's zooms out," the coach said after a practice session before the World Cup. "Right now it's too big of a difference between when she's really good and when she's bad."
This kind of talk is a reminder of how big the stakes are for the U.S. team right now, trying to wrest the World Cup back from two-time defending champion Germany on the Germans' home turf. Lloyd, who turns 29 on July 16 - the day before the World Cup final - is one of the mainstays of the American team. But she says she knows each game has to be played like it's the final.
Sundhage's tough love isn't news to Lloyd. In 2009, the coach was clear about what she hoped to see.
"It was kind of make or break," Lloyd said of that year. "She wanted more out of me."
The Olympic goal against Brazil was as dramatic as any ever produced by the U.S. women's team. "It was a huge goal, and I'll always be the one who scored that goal," Lloyd said. "It was tremendous. But when I look back, now looking back, I'm saying, 'Wow. If only I had done more.' Everything's a process. That's kind of long gone. I've totally forgotten about it. I'm a totally different player. And I think after that I kind of relaxed a little bit. . . . I finished up at the top, but it doesn't take long to jump off."
When Lloyd decided she needed to get much more fit to have a shot at making the national team, she worked out with Australian-born former pro James Galanis, who runs the Universal Soccer Academy in Medford. ("He turned me into a machine," Lloyd said in 2008.)
In 2009, Lloyd decided that she needed more gears. She believes Galanis provided them. He also is now her professional coach with the Atlanta Beat in Women's Professional Soccer.
"When you get to the top, everyone's good," Lloyd said. "You have to kind of figure out what you need. For me, I've got the skill. I've got the technique down. It's all about just maintaining my fitness. I have to do a little bit more than some other players. And vice versa, some players have to spend more time working with the ball and less time working with the fitness. I'm a totally different player going into this World Cup. I've leaned out. I've changed my diet. I've increased my fitness level tremendously."
Sundhage said Lloyd is tremendous at getting to balls in the air. She knows how to tackle. Her work with fellow central midfielder Shannon Boxx is top-notch. Lloyd is then the one taking the ball forward, challenging defenders with the dribble, opening up all those options.
"She's unique in many respects," Sundhage said.
And Lloyd isn't worried about the tough analysis from the coach. She said Sundhage supports her completely, especially after her personal training hit another level. And she isn't shy about listing her own personal goal of one day being the FIFA world player of the year.
"I started to see the results of what it's like when you become really fit," Lloyd said. "The sky's the limit for me."