MONTREAL — This Sunday, as kickoff approaches for the Women’s World Cup final, U.S. national team players will aim one last smile or nod toward family members and friends gathered at sold-out BC Place in Vancouver.
Midfielder Carli Lloyd probably won’t see anyone, though a sibling might attend the game without telling her.
It’s the way she wants it. Amid 51,000 spectators, Lloyd wants to be alone. This is not to imply selfishness; rather, it’s the veteran midfielder’s way of going, as she said early in the tournament, “off the grid” to remain attentive to the needs of a team that has waited 16 years for a third global trophy.
In the hours before Tuesday’s 2-0 semifinal victory over Germany, family and friends of the players turned a Marriott lobby into a festival of red, white and blue replica jerseys. Locating a “Lloyd 10” was like trying to find a spare ticket to the World Cup final.
“They understand,” said Lloyd, 32, a south Jersey native and Rutgers grad who plays for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League. “If I come home with the medal, we can celebrate together.”
For two weeks, the U.S. squad did not appear on course for any celebrations, aside from maybe a third-place half-smile.
Although they finished first in Group D without losing any of three matches, Lloyd and the attack were disconnected and unproductive. They were grinding out results and just getting by in a difficult quartet.
The first half of the round-of-16 match against Colombia brought more frustration for both her and the team. But after gaining a player advantage and taking the lead, Lloyd secured victory with a penalty kick — the first of three consecutive games in which she scored.
Four days later, during her 200th international appearance, Lloyd placed a 12-yard header into the right corner early in the second half against China to propel the Americans into the semifinals. And in the showdown with Germany, Lloyd converted a controversial penalty kick in the 69th minute and assisted on Kelley O’Hara’s clincher 15 minutes later.
“These are the moments I live for,” said Lloyd, the American scoring record-holder for a player who served exclusively as a midfielder (66). “Mentally, I have been trained to become a fierce competitor, live for challenges and never quit, no matter what the scenario is.”
Big matches have brought out big performances. In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, her extra-time goal against Brazil won the gold medal. Four years later in London, she scored twice in the final against Japan and became the first player, male or female, to score winning goals in consecutive gold medal games.
This summer, though, Lloyd and Lauren Holiday were not in sync in the heart of the U.S. midfield — an explanation, in part, for a clunky attack that did not score a goal in the run of play in either the second and third group matches. (Abby Wambach’s volley of a corner kick against Nigeria was the lone strike.)
After surviving the Colombia scare, Coach Jill Ellis made tactical adjustments that benefitted Lloyd. With Holiday serving a yellow-card suspension, Ellis inserted Morgan Brian to do the dirty work behind Lloyd. The move liberated Lloyd to express herself in the attack and provided the freedom of movement and improvisation. The team performed with greater fluidity and confidence.
In the Germany game, Ellis took it a step further, instructing both Brian and Holiday to play behind Lloyd. The team’s first-half display against FIFA’s top-ranked team was its finest of the competition, putting the Germans on their heels and setting the terms for the entirety of the match.
Lloyd floated into available space and launched forays before moving to the left flank late in the game. From there, she took the initiative with the ball at her feet, rushing to the end line and crossing to O’Hara for a leaping volley in the 84th minute.
“We have so much trust and faith in Carli, and she has so much self-confidence,” Wambach said.
Early in the tournament, Lloyd’s self-confidence was questioned by her former coach, Pia Sundhage, who oversaw Sweden’s disappointing performance this summer. Lloyd said she was confused and, though she denied it, her initial body language suggested Sundhage’s blunt remarks stung.
Her response on the field was not demonstrative; she focused on steering the team — and herself — to the championship game for the second consecutive tournament. Four years ago in Germany, the effort ended with defeat to Japan in a penalty kick tiebreaker.
The last time the United States won the championship, in 1999, Lloyd was six days short of her 17th birthday. Earlier in the tournament, she attended matches at the Meadowlands.
“I remember watching at Giants Stadium, thinking to myself this would be a dream come true to be a part of a team like this,” she said. “Never did I really think it was possible, let alone doing it for 10 years on this team.”
Fulfillment is less than a week away.
“We have really good momentum going into this,” Lloyd said. “I have a really confident feeling in us winning it.”