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Carli Lloyd is as driven as ever as U.S. women’s soccer team heads to France for World Cup

As Delran native Carli Lloyd embarks on the quest to repeat as a World Cup champion, she is as driven as ever to win. But this trip is different from her previous three, because she can see it’s likely to be her last.

Carli Llyod speaks to reporters during the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup media day on May 24.
Carli Llyod speaks to reporters during the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup media day on May 24.Read moreSeth Wenig / AP

If you’d like to know how Carli Lloyd is doing these days, just ask her.

Granted, this is easier said than done, especially for the average fan. But if you get the chance, she’ll tell you.

This happened a few days ago, at the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup media day. A reporter asked Lloyd whether she's comfortable with coming off the bench, as is her role these days, and she answered.

“No, I’m not,” the 36-year-old Delran native said. “I’m not here to be a super-sub, plain and simple. That’s not the type of person I am.”

For many observers, including some U.S. national team fans, Lloyd’s trademark self-confidence runs too far into arrogance. Yet countless male athletes of lesser stature earn praise for the same trait, or more often are simply ignored. You don’t reach the pinnacle of international soccer, or any sport, without an inner drive that’s beyond the understanding of most non-athletes.

All 23 players on the American World Cup team have it, even if they don’t express it as pointedly as Lloyd sometimes does.

“I’m a fighter. I’ll fight to the end,” she said. “I feel the fittest I’ve ever felt. I’ve reinvented my game these last three or four years: instead of the athletic, powerful Carli, just [put my] head down and go to goal.

“I’m a way better soccer player. I feel that my mind is the mind of a 36-year-old at the moment, but my body feels like [that] of a 26-year-old. There’s no doubt in my mind that it doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you finish.”

In 2015, she finished the World Cup with the trophy in her hand. Three trophies, in fact: She won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as the most outstanding player. A few months later, she was crowned FIFA’s world player of the year, and she won it again in 2016.

As Lloyd embarks on the quest to repeat as champion, she is as driven as ever to win. But this World Cup, which will begin for the Americans on June 11, is different from her previous three, because she can see it’s likely to be her last.

“The bigger the pressure, the more it’s just become instinct for me — the more that I go up three levels," Lloyd said. “I know that this could be a storybook ending. I know that the pen is in my hand, ultimately, and obviously I need some chances and minutes and things like that. But I know that the story is not over."

Lloyd’s former teammate Heather O’Reilly, a fellow New Jersey native, isn’t surprised that Lloyd is standing up for herself.

“People are inspired by different things, and Carli obviously has always been motivated by proving people wrong,” said O’Reilly, who will serve as one of Fox’s studio analysts in France. “That’s when she’s at her best. … I think it’s amazing that she’s asking questions of the coaching staff by her play.”

‘I turn every challenging situation into a positive’

After scoring two goals in a May 16 win over New Zealand, Lloyd compared being benched now to being benched before the 2012 Olympics by then-coach Pia Sundhage.

Lloyd ended up not staying on the sideline for long, because starter Shannon Boxx got injured 16 minutes into the Americans’ tournament opener against France. Lloyd went on to score the winning goal as the United States overcame an early 2-0 deficit to prevail, 4-2.

She scored again in the next game, then scored both goals in the gold medal game win over Japan.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and you see it in all of professional sports," she said after the New Zealand game. "I turn every challenging situation into a positive.”

There’s a difference between then and now, though. In 2012, Lloyd didn’t fit into Sundhage’s tactical plan for the midfield. This time, while there are some tactical considerations, it’s just as much — and perhaps more — about the talent on the rest of the team.

Whom from the U.S. team’s front five should Lloyd overtake?

Alex Morgan is the team’s best striker. Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath bring unmatched creativity to the wings, and Lloyd isn’t a winger. Rose Lavelle’s passing skills make her the best No. 10. Midfielder Lindsey Horan is arguably the Americans’ best overall player. And if U.S. coach Jill Ellis needs more defensive steel, she turns to Sam Mewis.

There simply might not be room for Lloyd to start. But that is a separate matter from whether or not fans should allow her to make the case. She clearly is enjoying being back in the spotlight that has come with scoring five goals in the national team’s last four games.

“I’m honestly having the time of my life right now,” Lloyd said. “I’m having fun playing, I’m enjoying playing with my teammates, I know I’ve got their support, every single one of them, and I know I can help this team this summer. So I’m going to do everything I can to be ready, stay ready — and keep banging in goals, I guess.”

The better comparison might be with four years ago, when Ellis managed Abby Wambach into a substitute role and won the World Cup. If Ellis can be as deft with Lloyd — and the potential for it has been on the horizon almost ever since the Americans left Vancouver with the trophy — the benefits could be huge.

“I honestly don’t think we would have won the World Cup in 2015 if Abby didn’t have the character that she has,” said O’Reilly, who played on that team. “I know that everybody wants to win and everybody knows that they can’t do it themselves, and it’s going to take everybody bringing their absolute best personality. That will get managed properly, I have no doubt.”

There is one big advantage to using Lloyd as a substitute, and it has both tactical and psychological angles. Few players anywhere in the world strike more fear into defenses when rising from the bench in the second half to charge at tired opponents.

Aly Wagner, Fox Sports’ lead World Cup game analyst, has seen Lloyd’s fire from the field and the television booth. They were teammates at the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics.

“I feel like there’s a sharpness, a crispness, and an intensity to the way she’s playing when she does get those minutes that Jill Ellis will give her, and it’s going to become important in the World Cup,” Wagner said. “And we all know she knows how to master that moment. I think that’s her role for this World Cup: it’s to be ready, and we know that she is. She always is."

‘She is human, after all’

Though Lloyd is as driven as ever, she is allowing herself more time to step back and see the bigger picture of what's likely her last World Cup.

“I’ve been the type of player that’s been all-in, fully focused. I’ve had the blinders on,” she said at the World Cup media day, as the crowd around her table grew. “I think that my blinders have kind of opened up a little bit. I think I’m more mature, I’m able to find a balance between life and managing all these different things and what works for me.”

She will cherish the in-between moments a bit more this time: the training camp sessions, the sightseeing, the time with teammates old and new.

“You get so focused on next, next, next,” Lloyd said. “I’m sort of at the last ‘next’ for a World Cup, so I want to soak every bit of it up. And I am more hungry than ever to help this team win a trophy.”

That perspective includes taking some good-natured ribbing from fellow veterans about a subject she holds dear.

Before her individual roundtable, Lloyd sat on a stage with Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. When a reporter asked Lloyd if she’s more comfortable with having friends and family at the World Cup than she was four years ago — she insisted back then that she didn’t want them to go — Rapinoe interjected: “She’s worse.” A moment later, she added: “Or better.”

Lloyd laughed.

“I’ve been known as the player that doesn’t want anybody to come to their events,” she said. “It’s not a superstitious thing, it’s just something that works for me. In order for me to be at my best — and if I’m at my best, that essentially helps the team — I just want to go over there and do my thing.”

This time, she isn’t being quite as rigid. She’s good with family and friends going over, including her husband — though she hasn’t raised the subject directly with him.

“I think the older that I’ve gotten, I feel that I have a good balance, and a good check on myself,” she said. “If he happens to buy a flight and come over, there’s some tickets that may possibly be saved for him. My cousin and her family are coming over as well. … If people want to fly over and surprise me, then go ahead.”

“She is human, after all,” Morgan said as she listened to all of this.

"You have softened up in your later years," Rapinoe added.

Only so much, though. If that isn’t clear yet, the entire world will find out soon.