VANCOUVER, British Columbia - All of the United States players who came to Canada for the Women's World Cup carried a measure of desire to end the nation's 16-year championship drought. But few players carried a greater measure than Carli Lloyd, a Delran native who for much of this year has worn the captain's armband.
So it was fitting that when the whistle blew at BC Place on Sunday night to begin the title game of the seventh Women's World Cup, Lloyd didn't just open the floodgates. She took a battering ram to them.
In a stunning span of just 16 minutes, Lloyd scored the first hat trick in a Women's World Cup final to propel the United States to a 5-2 win over Japan, the team that dramatically beat the Americans in the final four years ago. She won the Golden Ball as the tournament's most outstanding player.
"I've dedicated my whole life to this, and everything else comes second - but I wouldn't have it any other way," she said. "We just wrote history today and brought this World Cup trophy home."
First came a brilliant volley off a corner kick in the third minute, setting a record for the fastest goal in title game history. Two minutes later, Lloyd pounced on a close-range free kick to double the Americans' lead. Her third tally was a spectacular chip shot over Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori from the midpoint of the field - 54 yards away.
"I've dreamed of scoring a shot like that," Lloyd said. "When you're feeling good mentally and physically, those plays just are instincts, and it just happens."
It was the ultimate release for a player who found herself shackled by coach Jill Ellis' tactics when the tournament began. But after a frank conversation with Ellis early in the knockout rounds - and a frank conversation with reporters at about the same time - Lloyd, 32, won the right to be unleashed.
The first signal came during the 2-0 win over Colombia in the round of 16, when star striker Abby Wambach missed a penalty kick. Later in the game, the Americans won another penalty. This time Lloyd stepped up and smashed it home.
That same night in Edmonton produced the moment that truly set Lloyd free, albeit under less-than-ideal circumstances. Midfield partner Lauren Holiday's second yellow card of the tournament meant she would be suspended for the quarterfinal matchup with China, so Ellis was forced to bring in backup midfielder Morgan Brian.
Brian arrived with the specific order to stay back and do the dirty work defensively that would free Lloyd to attack. It paid off as Lloyd scored the only goal of a 1-0 win.
Holiday's return posed a question to Ellis: Who would sit out of the heavyweight clash against world No. 1 Germany in the semifinals? The answer, to the surprise and delight of many observers, was no one. Ellis changed her formation in Montreal to accommodate all three, making Lloyd the attacking tip of a midfield triangle.
"It was a natural decision for me to push [Lloyd] into a higher position," Ellis said Sunday night. "I still make her defend, but she relishes that role."
That move ended up solving the Lloyd puzzle and ended up being what propelled the Americans to the trophy. They dominated Germany in a 2-0 shutout, with Lloyd scoring the winner on a penalty kick and setting up the late clincher. Ellis stuck with the same lineup and formation against Japan, and from there Lloyd charged into the history books.
"I just want to thank Jill," Lloyd said. "I know lots of people out in the stands were worried about us, but we all held together, we all stayed the course."
At both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Lloyd scored the goals that won the Americans gold medals. Such moments - indeed, just one such moment - would be enough to define a career. But the World Cup was always the prize that Lloyd truly craved. Now, at long last, she has it.