From the start, it felt like the fate of the United States women’s national team hinged not on talent or tactics or even luck, but on the answers to a series of open questions. Can Alex Morgan get healthy in time to contribute? What do we do with Christen Press and Sydney Leroux? What happens when we pretend a withdrawn striker can play as a defensive midfielder? Who invited the old retired lady?
Turns out, the only question that mattered was whether USWNT manager Jill Ellis could trot out a lineup that afforded the United States’ best player, attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd, time and space to do her thing. It took a while, and the United States spent the first half of the tournament ignoring their midfield, instead lofting jump balls to Abby Wambach’s corpse or driving prayers into the corners for Morgan. It was ugly, scary stuff. But Ellis finally came around, and switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1. Morgan Brian held down the bulk of the defensive duties; the hyperathletic Lauren Holiday was finally left off her leash to run around and generally wreck shit; and Lloyd was free to sit between the opposing midfield and defensive lines. We didn’t know it, but the tournament was already over.
After scoring in the round of 16, Lloyd scored the winning goal in the quarterfinal against China, and scored and assisted in the American’s semifinal quasi-shocker over top-ranked Germany. And that brings us to the final, against Japan, when Lloyd opened the match by stringing together what I’ll boldly claim was the best 16-minute performance in the history of the sport.
When a midfielder is really playing their ass off, you almost have to squint to find them. They’re ghosts, disappearing into the ether before appearing again between opposing lines, collecting the ball, recirculating it out wide or knifing a pass between two defenders to a sprinting teammate, then evaporating again. Unbothered by the chaos around them, a midfielder who is verily shitting on their opponent can look something like a matador, and only on second viewing do you see who was running the show all along. Carli Lloyd was not that.
For 16 minutes, Lloyd was as terrifying and inevitable as a tornado. It took her less than three minutes to break through, on one of the best corner kick set pieces you’ll ever see.
It was a designed play for Lloyd. The United States lined up four players 10 yards from goal, and Holiday on the post. When winger Megan Rapinoe raised her hand, Holiday checked to the ball, dragging a defender away from the goal, as the other four players pushed the Japanese defenders into the mouth of their own goal by crashing the net. This created a wide alley for Rapinoe, the best striker of the ball in women’s soccer, to drive a low cross for Lloyd, who was sprinting into the box from goddamn Anchorage. The ball was perfect, and Lloyd’s finish—with the outside of her left foot, through traffic, and into the back of the net—was even better.
Lloyd’s second goal, two minutes later, was similar. It was a set play from the right side, much like the corner. Holiday drove a low ball through traffic, and the U.S.’s heavies forced their way near post. Lloyd started 18 yards out, waited a beat, and then slinked into the back post. She appeared out of seemingly nowhere, timing her run so well that no one even looked at her until she was tapping the ball in.
The game felt over after just five minutes. The game was over after 14 minutes, when Holiday banged in a deflection from eight yards to give the Americans the 3-0 lead. And then, in the 16th minute, Carli Lloyd brought the whole fucking house down.
Lloyd received a pass in the middle of the park, well inside her own half. She had no help whatsoever, but elected to turn and start the counter herself. With her first touch, she pantsed a Japanese defender and found herself in space. She didn’t appear to have any options outside of a hopeful diagonal ball to a streaking Morgan. This is generally when smart midfielders step on the ball, let the wave of opponents pass them by, then restart with more teammates around them. Instead, Lloyd looked up, peeked at the Japanese keeper on the edge of her own penalty area, and jacked one.
This is the greatest single moment I’ve ever witnessed in women’s soccer—greater than Brazil’s Marta going Super Saiyan against the United States eight years ago, and greater than Brandi Chastain’s elation eight years before that. It was a shocking moment of intelligence, instinct, and skill expressing themselves in two seconds of “fuck it, why not” genius. It was an honest-to-goodness, no-shit, 60-yard goal.
One beautiful thing about watching 24 teams engage in the world’s game over a month is the way it forces you to realize that these athletes are not like you. They’re fundamentally different, fundamentally more than you or anyone else you know, and capable of doing ethereal, miraculous things that stir the blood and burn the eyes and make you challenge your assumptions of what is physically achievable.
Here’s a confession: Before last night, I had never even considered the possibility that a woman could score from midfield. Sixty yards, after all, is a mighty long way. Hitting the target from that distance is a feat in itself. Beating a retreating keeper from that distance, however, is something else. There’s no margin for error. You have to disguise the approach, so as not to tip the keeper off. You have to strike the ball true, in stride, and you have to drive it, since a lofted shot either won’t make it to the goal, or will end with the keeper catching a harmless floater. Goals like these don’t really happen that often, and when they do at the top levels of the men’s game, it’s generally because a keeper gets lost on the pitch.
In soccer, where goals are scarce and hard to come by, scoring three goals by yourself feels incredible. The game seems different, then, and you feel different, because over 90 minutes, the stars or whatever the fuck have aligned perfectly, and you’re reaching the potential you always guessed you had but have only witnessed a few times yourself, and it feels kind of like you can score every time you touch the ball, because you’re playing against wheelchair-bound toddlers. Lloyd was on a hat trick after just 5 minutes. Of course she was going to shoot it. Of course it was going in.
In that moment, we watched the summer’s greatest player in her greatest moment, and the result was breathtaking. A few minutes later, she missed a diving header to notch a fourth goal by inches, and rose to her feet with an arrogant, knowing smile. The moment was over. Carli Lloyd played well the rest of the game, but nowhere near the level of these magical 16 minutes, and odds are we’ll never witness another 16 minutes like this again. But when the final whistle blew to declare the United States of America World Cup champions, everyone screamed her name all the same.
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