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Carli Lloyd reflects on the cost of greatness as her career ends

For the first time, the soccer star from Delran is allowing herself to be 'more vulnerable' in public as she plays the final games of her career.

Carli Lloyd saluting the crowd at her NWSL homecoming game with Gotham FC at Subaru Park on Oct. 6.
Carli Lloyd saluting the crowd at her NWSL homecoming game with Gotham FC at Subaru Park on Oct. 6.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

For nearly 20 years, Carli Lloyd has been defined by her competitive drive.

All those training days spent grinding away, as the title of her 2016 memoir put it, When Nobody Was Watching. All those years playing for Delran High, Rutgers, and seven professional teams across three leagues. All those U.S. national team practices that are often harder than games, leading to the second-most international games played by any women’s player.

And of course, all those goals and assists that delivered all those trophies: two World Cups, two Olympic golds, one Olympic bronze, one English FA Cup, and two FIFA player of the year awards. No player in U.S. team history has played more games in major tournaments (47); only Abby Wambach has more goals in major tournaments (23) than Lloyd’s haul (20).

Her inner fire is still burning as Lloyd heads into her final days as a player. She will suit up one more time for the national team, on Tuesday against South Korea in St. Paul, Minn. (8 p.m., FS1, TUDN), then play her last regular-season club game for Gotham FC next Sunday against Racing Louisville at Red Bull Arena (3 p.m., CBS Sports Network). Whenever Gotham’s playoff run ends, so will her playing career.

But while the fire burns, it has been joined by something we’ve rarely ever seen from Lloyd: a public self-reflection about what the fire consumed along the way.

Even journalists who’ve known Lloyd throughout her career were surprised to hear her say on Sept. 16: “I don’t think I’ve really, honestly, processed my career.”

It was one line among many in what had, up to then, felt like a standard-issue Zoom call. The U.S. had blown out Paraguay, 9-0, in a game that was never competitive. Lloyd had scored five goals, including two in the first six minutes, so she spoke afterward.

That turn of phrase lingered.

Ice and fire

“I feel like for 16 years I’ve just been this ice-cold player,” she said. “I haven’t allowed myself to get tired, I haven’t allowed myself to even think about what I’ve done in my career.”

A few minutes earlier, she said: “I think that I’ve just been a player who’s been wired to not switch off my entire career, and literally be all-in. Some may deem it a bit crazy, but in order for me to have gone on with the career that I have, I needed to approach things that way.”

And a few minutes later, she put it more bluntly.

“Done it my way, gone about it my way, been different, didn’t follow the crowd, went against the grain,” she said. “But I had to do that in order to get to this point.”

I needed to approach things that way … I had to do that in order to get to this point.

By reading those words, you have come closer to the fire.

In the decade-plus that I’ve covered the best soccer player the Philadelphia area has ever produced, I’ve seen firsthand her practices, her games, and her goals. And yes, I’ve seen her ego, too — that confident and audacious self-belief that leads to things like scoring from the midfield line in a World Cup final.

» READ MORE: A history of Carli Lloyd at the World Cup and Olympics

The latest of many one-on-one interviews I’ve done with her came two weeks after that September game, ahead of her NWSL homecoming at Subaru Park. I asked her if she really meant to say she has “not processed her career.”

“One hundred percent honesty, I have not processed my career because I haven’t allowed myself to process it,” she said. “Because I’ve always just put my head down, rolled my sleeves up, and just have been grinding away, and have always just wanted to have the mindset, every single day, every single game, to go out there as if I have not achieved anything.”

The first time she did allow herself to look back and linger on career memories, she said, was when she worked with the U.S. women’s team’s longtime public relations chief, Aaron Heifetz, on the news release announcing her retirement. It was published on Aug. 16, just over a week after she got home from becoming the first American woman to score goals in four Olympics.

“That was the first time where I’ve read everything line-by-line,” she said. “I saw the stats, I saw the accomplishments, and — yeah, I couldn’t believe the numbers and the stats. I think it’s something that I’ll process a lot more when I’m done playing. But right now I just want to savor these moments, I want to enjoy it.”

Allowing herself to open up

Why hasn’t she done that processing yet?

“I just never had been willing to allow myself to ever go there with what I’ve achieved,” she said.

I just never had been willing to allow myself to ever go there …

That’s another glimpse of what it took for Lloyd to not just reach the top of the world’s game, but stay there for as long as she has.

» READ MORE: Gotham FC helped Carli Lloyd play a professional club game at home for the first time

Sure, all the “when no one was watching” rhetoric sounded like a cliche after a while. But the stories about how she wasn’t one of the chosen prospects in the U.S. youth system who was always destined for stardom? And how she forced her way on to the scene after attending a less-glamorous college than North Carolina, Stanford, and other traditional powers? They’re all true.

What Lloyd did to achieve what she has was likely what it took to achieve what she has. And it may have come with a cost.

Some people may never forgive Lloyd for declining to kneel in solidarity with teammates of color. It’s still a topic of discussion in the soccer world.

We also might never know the true impact of Lloyd’s being separated from her family for over a decade, or what caused her to suddenly split from her longtime trainer, James Galanis. She hasn’t gone into much detail publicly on those subjects.

But we recently got a significant hint about how Lloyd has processed the weight of the moment she’s now in.

After the final whistle of the game at Subaru Park, Lloyd stood on the field for a ceremony in her honor. Her family, with whom she reunited last year, stood a few feet away to one side. Gotham FC general manager Yael Averbuch West stood a few feet away to the other. Lloyd’s club teammates and players from the Washington Spirit stood in groupings some distance behind her.

They were visible, but metaphorically Lloyd stood alone. And she knew it.

She took a deep breath, looked up at the crowd, and then looked down. She tried to hold back tears.

For 16 seconds, there was a stunning, profound silence. Then Lloyd gathered herself and addressed the crowd.

Minutes later, she met with the media on another Zoom call. This time, everyone knew it wouldn’t be ordinary.

» READ MORE: Carli Lloyd thanks Philadelphia soccer fans for giving her a NWSL homecoming game she’ll never forget

‘Tunnel vision’

“I’m being a bit more vulnerable,” Lloyd said, “and emotions are flying out.”

Here they came.

“I think for so long, so many people just misunderstood me, what I was about,” she said. “I’ve been labeled so many things, I think so many people have had this perception of me. And I’ve just wanted, you know, two things: to be the best soccer player that I possibly can be, to help my team win championships, World Cups, Olympics; and I’ve just been on this mission to be the best that I possibly can.”

She knows how many people wanted her to be more than that, and wanted it for many years. Her remarks that she had to “just stay away from drama” and “march to my own beat” are targets for her critics, because for many of them there’s been more than just “drama.”

But those critics might allow a connection between Lloyd’s tunnel vision and her arrogance. For they know that everyone else on the U.S team has a big ego, too.

Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach — the list of outstanding women’s national team players is 30 years long, and it will grow for decades more. Athletes don’t get to the pinnacle of sport on the planet without an uncommon inner ruthlessness.

People usually don’t see any evidence of that when those players are on camera. They are polite, fun, and often self-effacing. When they’re on the field, though, they intend to crush you.

The U.S. team simply wouldn’t be what it is without that mentality, as numerous talented opponents who’ve lacked that extra gear of intensity can attest. And Lloyd — who, by the way, gets to go out on her own terms by retiring now — is among the best examples.

“For so long in my career, I’ve just had this tunnel vision, and haven’t really shed many emotions throughout that,” she said after the game in Chester. “This, I’m enjoying it. I’m having fun out there. I’m smiling, you know, just feeling a bit more alive.”

» READ MORE: In 2012, Carli Lloyd went from being a Jersey girl to being a global superstar

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