This story is part of a series in the December 23, 2012 edition of SportsWeek honoring the Daily News Sportsperson of the Year. Carli Lloyd finished third in the award voting. You can also read about award winner Mike Trout and the other runners-up: Bill O'Brien, Carlos Ruiz and Claude Giroux.
By her own admission, U.S women's national soccer team star Carli Lloyd was almost written off earlier this year.
Heading into the Olympics, Lloyd suddenly found herself out of coach Pia Sundhage's starting lineup. As her 30th birthday arrived in mid-July, there were questions as to whether the Delran, N.J., native could be out of the picture entirely.
Instead, Lloyd flipped the script. She stepped up when her team needed her most, and ended up playing a big role in the U.S.' gold medal run.
By the time she and her teammates stood on the podium at Wembley Stadium, there were no doubts left about what Lloyd brings to the field.
The 30-year-old has scored 15 goals this year. That's a higher total than in any other year of her eight with the national team. Her total of 32 games played is the second-highest of any year in her career.
Of course, the spotlight shone brightest – and the pressure was highest - during the Olympics. In addition to the usual media frenzy, the U.S. came to London as reigning Olympic champions. And to top that off, the U.S. had revenge on its mind, after losing the 2011 World Cup final to Japan.
It was a perfect scenario for Lloyd to thrive in. But just weeks before the Games began, U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage decided to bench her. Not because of anything Lloyd had done, but just because Sundhage wanted to play a different style.
"When something like that happens - you put in all this work and dedication to something you love... I didn't understand it," Lloyd said. "Why was it happening now? What had I done to deserve it? I worked so hard, probably harder than anyone else on the team, and now I'm faced with this challenge a couple months before leaving for London. It was a really hard thing."
Lloyd turned to her longtime trainer, James Galanis. Together, they sketched out a plan.
"He could see it on my face," Lloyd said. "He said look, you can't sit here and worry about the reasons why [this happened] – you've got to just dig deeper."
When the U.S. squad got to London, Lloyd met with Sundhage to try to get a better understanding of what was expected.
"I've had a lot of obstacles throughout my career and I can honestly that I have persevered through all of them," Lloyd said. "I told [Sundhage] that I will win this battle, and I will win my spot back, and I will help the team win a gold medal."
Sundhage smiled, as she so often did in her time in charge of the U.S. team.
"She was happy to hear my response and to know I wasn't going to give up," Lloyd said. "She appreciated the respect that I had to dig deeper and not crumble. After a week and a half over there, she said to me, 'You're playing really well. We're going to need you.'"
It didn't take long for Lloyd to get her chance. Shannon Boxx, the U.S.' starting defensive midfielder, came to the Olympics carrying an injury. She could only last 15 minutes of the team's opening game against France before having to leave the field.
That was Lloyd's chance to step up. To say she did so would be an understatement.
Lloyd helped spark a U.S. rally from an early 2-0 deficit, scoring what turned out to be the winning goal in a 4-2 victory. She scored three more goals in the Olympics, including both U.S. tallies in the 2-1 gold medal game triumph over Japan.
The winning strike was one for the ages. Early in the second half. Lloyd ran nearly half the length of the field before smashing in a shot from long range.
"I was going to pass the ball to Abby [Wambach] or Alex [Morgan], as they kept bending their runs out – they did a great job of clearing the space," Lloyd said. "But no one [from Japan's defense] was coming to me. So I said to myself, 'I'm just going to unleash this.' Sure enough, it went in the back of the net, and it was one of the greatest feelings of my life."
If that's not clutch enough for you, consider this: that was the second consecutive Olympic gold medal game in which Lloyd scored the winning goal for the United States.
I asked Lloyd whether, before the Games, she could have imagined repeating her 2008 heroics four years later.
"I would have said no way that's possible," she admitted. "And I got asked a lot prior to leaving [for London]."
Lloyd's contributions haven't just come on offense. She regularly tracks back on defense, and can take a hard hit when doing so. Just ask Canada's Melissa Tancredi, who stepped on Lloyd's face in the Olympic semifinal game this year. Lloyd stayed on the field, and played all 120 minutes of the game - including both overtimes.
"I think this last year, leading up to and in London, I really showed everybody that I am a versatile center midfielder," she said. "If you need to me to be an attacking midfielder, I can do that. If you need me to be a holding midfielder, I can do that… "I've evolved into a complete center midfielder and that's what I've been striving for all along."
So yes, those questions about Lloyd's role have been answered now. Not that much proof was really necessary, but this year showed once and for all how important she is to the U.S. women's national team.