The best players in the world prove themselves as such by rising to the occasion on the biggest stage when it matters most. That is exactly what Carli Lloyd did for the USWNT at the 2015 World Cup.
Although still revered as the greatest international team in the women’s game, the United States hadn’t won a World Cup in 2016 years by the time the tournament in Canada rolled around, since the 99ers generation of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Brianna Scurry.
What’s more, they hadn’t won a World Cup on foreign soil since the inaugural championship in 1991.
The Americans had dominated the global stage in between by winning Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012, but the World Cup was the prize that they craved and Lloyd peaked at the absolute right time to deliver it in spectacular fashion.
Lloyd, born and raised in New Jersey - even playing college soccer at the local Rutgers University, made her senior international debut in the summer of 2005 shortly after turning 23.
She was already a relatively late bloomer, with plenty of top USWNT players before or since, including the aforementioned Hamm and Chastain and eventual teammates Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan selected for the first time while still at college.
Lloyd didn’t actually start an international match until 2006 and despite starting the group games at the 2007 World Cup, where the USWNT infamously lost heavily in the semi-finals against Brazil, it was 2008 before she made a significant impact at a global tournament for the first time.
But it was at those Olympics in China in 2008 where her clutch powers really emerged. The U.S. had lost their opening game to Norway, but Lloyd went on to score the only goal in a crucial victory over Japan to get the team back on track. It was then eventually her extra-time winner against Brazil in the final, revenge for the World Cup a year earlier, that clinched the gold medal.
Lloyd had started all 35 matches the USWNT played in 2008 and was named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year alongside men’s goalkeeper Tim Howard. She suffered an injury setback in 2010 when she broke her ankle playing at club level, but was back in 2011 and went to the World Cup wearing the number 10 shirt she has become synonymous with for the first time at a major tournament.
That World Cup ended in heartbreak for the USWNT and Lloyd in particular. She was one of three American players to miss a penalty in the final shootout against Japan, but it only served to motivate her more the challenges that lay ahead.
In 2012, Lloyd claimed a second Olympic gold medal with her country, scoring both U.S. goals in the final against Japan. Three years later, the World Cup rolled around again, the third of her career, by which time she was soon to turn 33 and was a vastly experienced world class player with 195 international caps and 63 international goals. But the biggest prize was still to come.
It was a star-studded American squad featuring the likes of Hope Solo, Tobin Heath, Lauren Holiday, Heather O’Reilly, Amy Rodriguez, veteran trio Shannon Boxx, Abby Wambach and Christie Pearce, the only surviving 99er, as well as the aforementioned Rapinoe and Morgan.
Lloyd played every minute of a tricky group stage and proceeded to make the tournament her own in the knockout stages. A second half penalty ensured the USWNT won their last 16 tie against Colombia with little trouble, while, as captain, she headed the only goal of the game in a tight quarter-final against China. That was her 200th international appearance.
In the semi-final against Germany, Lloyd was again ice cold from the penalty spot and fired her team ahead against the European giants, who had won the World Cup twice since the last American triumph in 1999. Kelley O’Hara eventually made sure of the result late on.
Lloyd had scored in all three knockout matches to put the USWNT into the final and set up a repeat of the 2011 showdown against reigning champions Japan. This was to be her finest hour.
She was on a completely different level in the final and Japan couldn’t handle her perfect blend of technique, athleticism, aggression and power.
Lloyd was fastest to react to a low corner in just the third minute of the game, stabbing the USWNT into the lead. Barely any time had then passed before she scored her second to double that advantage, again reacting to a low set-piece into the penalty area. Holiday scored a fine U.S. third, still only 14 minutes into the final, with Lloyd completing her hat-trick immediate after.
The hat-trick goal was the pick of the bunch and highlighted both her incredible vision and immense physical strength, winning the ball at the halfway line, seeing Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori out of position and having the ability to launch the ball more than 50 yards into the goal.
This was a hat-trick of the tallest order on the biggest stage to end 16 years of waiting. Not only that, it had been Lloyd’s contributions earlier in the tournament that dragged the USWNT to the final.
“She won us this World Cup,” said Wambach after the final whistle. Meanwhile Japan coach Norio Sasaki commented, “She always does this to us,” referring to the 2012 Olympic final. But there was no real comparison as Lloyd’s performances throughout the 2015 World Cup were a step above.
Revealing what her mindset had been ahead of the game, Lloyd herself admitted that she had “visualized playing in the World Cup final and visualized scoring four goals.”
Even though she was already an international star in the context of women’s football, that 2015 World Cup transformed Lloyd into bigger global name that transcended the women’s game and pushed her and her team into a wider public. Later that year, she shared the stage with Lionel Messi as FIFA World Player of the Year and was again a FIFA award winner in 2016.
As a veteran of the squad in 2019, Lloyd played a smaller role as the USWNT successfully defended a World Cup title for the first time.
She retires in 2021 as a two-time World Cup winner, two-time Olympic champion, second on the all-time USWNT and world appearance list and top Olympic scorer in USWNT history. Without her knockout stage clutch performances, the 2015 triumph would never have been possible.