In an exclusive interview with The Inquirer, U.S. soccer star and Delran native Carli Lloyd reflects on her quest for a record-tying fifth major title at the Tokyo Olympics, and why she’s never been happier in her career.
Since the start of Carli Lloyd’s U.S. national team career 16 years ago, the Delran, N.J., native has been a machine of a player.
Through 306 national team caps, seven major tournaments and seven professional teams across two continents, Lloyd has set standards not just with goals and assists, but with a work ethic and inner drive that are among the most powerful in American soccer history. Teammates and rivals alike have told stories of the example she sets on and off the field, in games and practices and countless ice baths.
But there is a human being behind that machine. It hasn’t always been easily visible, and at times Lloyd has deliberately kept it hidden, but it’s there. And as Lloyd the soccer player prepares for the Olympics, the eighth and likely last major tournament of her career, Lloyd the human — who celebrated her 39th birthday on Friday with her U.S. teammates in Japan — is coming back to the fore.
“I think this is the first time in my career where I’m entering a major tournament feeling, physically and mentally, more prepared and ready than I ever have been,” she told The Inquirer. “But I think the most important aspect is I’ve never been this happy.”
That’s no small statement, considering how many pinnacles she has reached in her career. The bigger statement, though, came as she continued.
“I was happy, you know, throughout my career, but also, it was different,” she said. “And I’m not going to dive into the past and have any regrets of how I was, you know — that made me. I was that way for a certain aspect, to get through my career and become the player that I’ve become. But I just feel lighter, I feel happier, I feel content.”
‘Enjoying the moment’
She knows the significance of feeling that way right now.
“To be able to be in that space as a footballer, and to have both — to still be competitive, still be at the top of your game, but also feeling super happy — not many people have that,” she said. “And I think I’m enjoying the moment even more. Whereas in my career, it was constantly: ‘What’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’”
“I think this is the first time in my career where I’m entering a major tournament feeling, physically and mentally, more prepared and ready than I ever have been.”
Now, Lloyd says, “I don’t know how many more ‘nexts’ there’s going to be right now. And so I just feel like I’m in such a good place in life, and enjoying the process a lot more.”
Lloyd’s critics will try to poke holes in those words, as they so often do with her playing style and her public persona. But when she says she’s never been this happy, how would outsiders know otherwise? And if they don’t, why deny her that happiness?
There’s ample evidence, if they’re willing to see it: not just with her play on the field, but in matters off it. Such as when her family took part in a ceremony last month for Lloyd’s 300th national team appearance.
That gathering was unimaginable for the dozen years when Lloyd was estranged from her parents, a split caused by the close bond she formed with her longtime South Jersey-based trainer, James Galanis.
When Lloyd published her autobiography five years ago, she wrote that she hoped to reconnect with her family. Many people who knew her hoped it would happen but feared it might not. The public may never know what it took, but the amount of time that passed from then to now says something on its own.
“I don’t think any family wants any sort of thing to throw a wrench in their relationship and not speak,” she said. “I had been speaking to my sister since my book came out in 2016, so we did have a relationship, but I would still think that I was a bit reserved, and just not fully there with the relationship.”
Now, at last, they are.
“The look on my mom’s face, she really couldn’t keep it together, pretty much just said it all in that moment,” Lloyd said of the ceremony. “I mean, obviously, I had to keep it together, I had a game to prepare for, but it’s just been amazing. … I was just incredibly grateful, glad they could all be there, just share that moment, because that moment really meant a ton to me.”
Change on the field
Lloyd also hired a new local trainer, Chris Halladay, and resumed evolving her playing style into the striker role she plays for U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski.
The fruit of that labor has been clear in recent weeks. She scored 23 seconds into a June 13 win over Jamaica, had an assist in a win over Nigeria three days later, and had one of each in the Olympic sendoff win over Mexico on July 5. The goal was a diving header; the assist was a header that might have been even better. Lloyd rose in traffic to nod forward a Kelley O’Hara long ball, landing it inch-perfectly in front of Lindsey Horan for a first-time smash.
That evolution, by the way, is far from Lloyd’s first. When she scored the gold medal-winning goal in the 2008 Olympic final, she was a central midfielder. She has played for five U.S. managers over the years — as an attacking midfielder, a defensive midfielder, a wide midfielder, a forward in a pair of them, a forward in a trio of them, and a forward alone up top.
“I knew that no matter what coach I played for, I had to be so good, they couldn’t ignore me,” Lloyd said. “If there was one person that was going to force me out, it would be because of me. And I’ve taken that approach every single day, and it’s made me perform, because at the end of the day if you’re not performing here, you’re not going to be here.”
It’s still working. Lloyd has three goals and a team-leading six assists in 12 national team games this year, even though she’s the oldest player on the Olympic team by three years. (Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe, both 36, are next.)
“I have a type A personality — I’m constantly looking within my game, trainings, you know, what wasn’t I doing as good at. I come home on my break and then I just obsess over it, and I work on it until I get it,” Lloyd said. “I’ve had to hone this number nine position. I’ve only been playing it since 2018, [and] there was only a couple of months in 2020 [for games, due to the pandemic]. So I had to learn a completely different position and excel in it.”
Roll your eyes if you want. Lloyd knows how many people will. But she had three goals and an assist in the position at the 2019 World Cup, as the oldest player on the title-winning squad. She played in all seven games, starting one and serving as a second-half closer in the rest.
(You try playing the U.S. team’s starters for 45, 60 or 75 minutes, then seeing a fresh-legged Lloyd rise off the bench to enter the game.)
She’s also the biggest star of the NWSL’s Gotham FC, with eight games played for the club this year before she left for pre-Olympic camp.
“It’s been really fun to just continue the grind,” she said. “There’s always stuff that I can keep improving on.”
At the same time, Lloyd knows her internal clock is ticking. And she is listening to it.
“The time is coming to an end at some point,” she said. “And it’s not an end because my body can’t handle it. It’s going to be an end, and it’s going to be a decision, because I’ve literally spent my entire 16-year career with soccer on my mind 24/7, doing everything possible to be the player that I have been.”
There’s Lloyd the human again, alongside Lloyd the soccer player.
“I’m going to want to live my life at some point,” she said. “I’m going to want to start a family with my husband, spend more time with my family since they’re back in my life, my nieces, my friends, and just do things that I’ve put on hold for so many years. I want to get through the Olympics, and then I’m going to have to really, you know, start to kind of have some conversations with my husband, and figure it out. Because the time is eventually coming.”
She doesn’t know yet exactly when that time will be; those post-Olympics discussions will be when she figures it out. But the fact that she willingly talks about the idea is enough of a sign.
Pursuing history and the future
This is not to say she’ll leave the sport. She has already ventured into the media, doing video analysis features for ESPN as part of the Detail series launched by Kobe Bryant in 2018. Vanessa Bryant invited her to come on board.
Coincidentally, the first two players she has spotlighted also have Philly-area ties: Hershey’s Christian Pulisic and Medford’s Brenden Aaronson. In fact, Brenden’s parents live in the same neighborhood as her current home, and Lloyd knows Brenden’s father, Rusty.
“I had a lot of fun with it, because I think that I have become such a smarter player and can read the game so much better than I ever have,” Lloyd said. “It’s great to see the local guys doing so well, Christian and Brenden, and I know that there’s a lot more to come from both of them.”
The time will come when Pulisic, Aaronson and other local products reach the big stages that Lloyd has played on for so long. But for now, any ranking of the Philly area’s all-time top soccer players starts with the one who has played in more big games and won more titles than any other: two World Cups, two Olympic gold medals, and two FIFA World Player of the Year awards.
If the heavily favored U.S. team wins gold in Tokyo, Lloyd will have won five national team titles in eight major tournaments. Only one player in U.S. history has won five national team titles, fellow New Jerseyan Christie Pearce Rampone. Nine players have four titles. (The only other one of them who can reach five this year is another Garden State product, Tobin Heath.)
Critics in the fan base will take to Twitter, Tumblr, and all the other social media platforms where there’s been so much talking about her. But nothing speaks louder than her record on the field. No one would bet against it, and her, having the final say this summer.
“I wouldn’t have predicted all this,” she said of that record. “But I think when you just keep your head down and you keep working day in and day out, little by little, eventually, good things come your way. And here we are, you know, 16 years later, 300-and-some caps, fourth Olympic team. It’s pretty surreal.”
The USWNT’s top title-winners
Twenty-three players in the U.S. women’s soccer program’s history have won at least three major international trophies, starting with the first women’s World Cup in 1991 (before the tournament was called a “World Cup”). Here’s the list of them.
Cindy Parlow Cone