Had the Tokyo Olympics been contested in 2020, as scheduled, Carli Lloyd would have been a whole year younger. She’d have turned 38 immediately in advance of the Games, rather than 39 – which, to be frank, still is uncommonly old for a professional soccer player. So maybe those extra 12 months really don’t mean so much.
Or maybe they’ve made Lloyd even better at the sport in which she already is a legend.
“I actually feel better,” she told Sporting News, after the U.S. Women’s National team completed a 4-0 friendly victory Sunday night over Jamaica. “And I don’t think that, if it was played in 2020, a number of different things wouldn’t have happened.
“My family wouldn’t have been a part of it. I wouldn’t have had knee surgery. I changed up my strength program, started working with a guy back home. I have a new trainer that I do ball work with. So I feel like I went from thinking that I’m continuing to get better to just like a whole ‘nother level. I’ve never been this fit, fast, explosive.”
If it seems unlikely there could be another level beyond excellence for an athlete encountering middle age, you have not been paying attention to the sporting world in 2021. Tom Brady, already the owner of six Super Bowl rings, won his seventh as a 43-year-old quarterback. Golfer Phil Mickelson earned a sixth major title with a PGA Championship triumph at age 50. Helio Castroneves, essentially discarded by his race team as he entered his mid-40s, won a fourth Indianapolis 500 at age 46.
Lloyd may not appear to belong in this age group at first glance, but understand the nature of the sport and the constant, year-round grind tends to age soccer players more rapidly. Mia Hamm played her last game for the USWNT at 32. Abby Wambach was done at 35. Landon Donovan, the greatest USMNT player, was cut from the 2014 World Cup team at age 32. Zinedine Zidane ended his career with a World Cup triumph shortly after turning 34.
Lloyd will reach her 39th birthday July 16, and it’ll be a full celebration if that occurs in Japan while preparing to open the Games five days later against nemesis Sweden. She has won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. She has earned 303 caps, third in world soccer history, and scored 125 international goals, which ranks sixth. Against Jamaica, she became the oldest player ever to score for the USWNT, and she bagged that goal 23 seconds into the match, as though it were essential to get it done before time caught up with her (video below).
It still might. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not postponed the Olympics into this summer, making the U.S. squad might have been a slightly less brutal challenge. Veteran striker Alex Morgan would have been only two months past the birth of her daughter, Charlie, and Lloyd had excelled in the position while Morgan was absent. Lynn Williams had only just returned to the national team, although she performed well and scored the game-winner in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying final against Canada. Promising Midge Purce had barely a cap to her name.
Unlike the World Cup, which allows teams to bring 23 players to what can become a seven-game tournament for the winner and runner-up, the Olympics only accommodates 18 players per team for the six games required to claim a gold medal. For his first tournament as USWNT head coach, Vlatko Andonovski will have to make some excruciating decisions because of the abundance of talented players. He must balance any desire to get essential international tournament experience for younger players with the understanding the primary goal is to field the team most likely to claim the gold medal.
“It is extremely difficult, but at the same time, the closer we get, I think, the easier it gets,” Andonovski told Sporting News. “It gets clearer with the analysis we’re able to do, and the evaluation. If we had 23, it was going to be difficult to cut players number 24, 25 and 26. It is always difficult.
“We have a very deep roster … regardless of what the number is, it will always be difficult.”
Perhaps because there was not a national team schedule to consume her, Lloyd took the opportunity to make some massive changes in her life during 2020. She parted ways with her longtime trainer, James Galanis, who had become a sort of personal “guru” for the player who scored the winning goals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and won the 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year award.
The work with Galanis had been a factor in Lloyd’s enduring rift with her family, which lasted more than a decade. Upon ending that affiliation, Lloyd called her parents and began working to repair that relationship.
She now hopes to win one last gold medal, insisting her desire to experience life beyond professional sports – not her advancing age – will end her career. The only concession to competing in such proximity to her 40th birthday has been the transition to center forward, a position that typically does not require covering as much ground as midfielder.
As is typical of Lloyd, though, she has worked ferociously to master the position, including film study of the game’s best strikers to learn their tricks and techniques. She had made the transition in advance of the USWNT’s triumph at the 2019 World Cup, appearing in all seven games and scoring three goals for coach Jill Ellis, but the arrival of Andonovski meant relearning how to play as a center forward.
“The way the No. 9 position was played was a bit different with Jill,” Lloyd said. “We didn’t high press, we didn’t do certain things. I feel like the way that Vlatko wants our team to play kind of just fits me. I love high pressing. I love putting the defenders and opponents under pressure. From the time that Vlatko came on board to now, I’ve literally just been a sponge trying to continuously get better and evolve my game.”
Lloyd is famous for the personal slights she seized upon for motivation, starting with her benching in advance of the 2012 Olympics that ended with her scoring twice in the gold-medal match. Before the 2019 World Cup, she bristled at the suggestion she had embraced the role of “super-sub”, emphasizing to SN she still was fighting for a starting spot every day.
In the early hours Monday, Lloyd made sure to tell The Philadelphia Inquirer’s excellent soccer writer, Jonathan Tannenwald, she was aware he had predicted she would not make the Olympic roster, and that she was particularly annoyed because the Inquirer was essentially a hometown paper for someone who grew up 14 miles away in Delran, N.J.
“I don’t think if I’ll be able to answer directly about any player, not just Carli, any player on this team until I really have to,” Andonovski told Tannenwald. “I will say that I was happy with her performance: comes in, scores the goal, sets the pace for the team and does well overall, not just in this game but in the previous games and in training. So I think she’s in a really good place.”