It’s strange. For all the absolute world-class players the USWNT has had, and still does, we still think of them as a “team.” Maybe that’s a testament to their absurd depth, and their dedication to being the best as a unit, that we rarely single one out. Megan Rapinoe may have won Player of the Tournament in 2019’s World Cup, but she was no more dangerous on the counter than Tobin Heath or Alex Morgan. There was no better central midfielder than Julie Ertz in that tournament, and she could still easily claim to be among the world’s best when healthy. Crystal Dunn was among the best right backs in the world that summer, even more impressive as her club career has mostly seen her on the wing. It’s been the case through the years that whatever position you looked at, the U.S. carried one of the best on the planet. But still, mostly, we view them as a unit. Then again, when you have so many ultra-talented players, it’s hard for someone to stand out that much.
Some of that is due to their fight for fair compensation, maybe some of that is that they’re not followed as closely in their club careers and most viewers only see them all together. In the past, the brilliance of Mia Hamm, or Abby Wambach, or Michelle Akers had always been extolled, but they were the peaks of a whole collection rather than complete standouts on their own. They weren’t billed in the same way that Marta has been for Brazil, or Sam Kerr for Australia, or Lucy Bronze for England.
But, for one day in 2015, Carli Lloyd rose above the label of “member of the best team in the world,” and was on her own plane.
I’ve written before how the “best player in the world” debate, at least in soccer, is still rooted in feeling. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to quantify it in some fashion, but due to all the different leagues and styles spanning the globe, it’s usually hard to get a definite answer. It’s just something you sense when watching a player, that they’re doing something that only they can at that moment. Here on these shores, we have the best leagues in the world, so we don’t need that debate. The NBA is the highest calling for basketball. Ditto the NHL and MLB. We can see the best players in those sports and declare them the best in the world fairly easily. Not so in the beautiful game.
But for Lloyd, on July 5th, 2015, there wasn’t any doubt.
There was an unmatched viciousness about the USWNT that day, probably stemming from the need to avenge their final loss to Japan the previous World Cup (and one the U.S. basically chucked away themselves). The sharp end of the stick, the poison on the blade, was Lloyd, who was simply unplayable. It wasn’t so much her orchestrating that utter demolition of Japan as the rest of the team being channeled through her and her powers. It not only felt like the whole game pivoted and orbited around her, but pretty much the entire world did for 90 minutes.
Lloyd ended up tied for top scorer in that tournament, and her form throughout that summer was imperious. She would be FIFA’s Player of the Year soon after, and then won that award again the following year to back that up.
There are few people who can claim to have bent the biggest game in the world, a World Cup Final, to their will. Diego Maradona could. Zinedine Zidane can. Arguably the original Ronaldo could. Lloyd can too.
It makes for an awkward juxtaposition, because to know anything about how Lloyd carried herself and worked tirelessly throughout her career, she would never admit to sitting on top of the world. There was always something else to reach for, someone to prove wrong, one more goal to reach. Meg Linehan had a wonderful bio of her yesterday in The Athletic, profiling Lloyd seemingly coming to terms with how her work ethic had made her a truly generational star while costing her in the rest of her life at times, as she was about to play her last national team game (which she did last night). Even that performance from another planet in 2015 wouldn’t have been enough for someone as driven as Lloyd.
Whether Llloyd will go down as the US’s best ever over her career is a debate that will never be settled. What she can say, and perhaps no other person can, is that for one summer and one afternoon in particular, she played at a level that marked her out a step ahead and above a team full of world-class stars. That a team we have always viewed as one could only look up and admire one of their own who had risen to just a different place. That is a place that very few ever tread.