It started well before yesterday in Montreal. In fact, you can go all the way back to 2008 to see Carli Lloyd’s stunning calm under pressure. The USWNT had battled Brazil for over 90 minutes of scoreless soccer in the gold medal match of the Beijing Olympics, when Lloyd struck six minutes into extra time. With one touch, she opened up enough space for herself just outside the Brazil box. Then the 25-year-old ripped a left-footed cannon past the keeper for the only goal of the game and gold for the Americans.
And that’s not even the best Carli Lloyd performance in an Olympic gold medal match. Undoubtedly, that would be the 2012 London Olympics when the United States faced a remarkably talented Japanese squad that had outlasted them in the epic 2011 World Cup final. The US Women wanted revenge and Lloyd was the ideal candidate to dish it out. In just the 8th minute, Alex Morgan chipped in a cross for a waiting Abby Wambach to knock in, but Lloyd came flying in from straight on with a header to give the US the lead. Sorry, Abby. Later, in the 54th minute with the US still clinging to that tenuous lead, Lloyd went all Steven Gerrard through the midfield. She carried the ball past a Japanese defender before unleashing a perfectly curated strike from just outside the box again, this time with her right foot. Japan would get one back, but the USWNT held on for a 2-1 victory, on the back of Lloyd’s big game heroics.
I’ve always been slightly ambivalent when it comes to the concept of clutch in sports. I get that it seems like some just perform better with the game, or season, on the line, but many times they were just put in a better position to succeed than someone we label as a “choker”. What if a player submits an amazing performance, but loses. Is that person clutch or not? Also, is “clutch-ness” innate or can it be learned? People always talk about it like it’s some kind of esoteric quality only accessed by special athletes. They called LeBron James a choker for years before he broke through with multiple championships. Did he learn how to be clutch, or did he always have it? What I’m saying is this: In our sports culture, the concept of clutch is absolutely overstated.
And yet, Carli Lloyd has me rethinking all of this because of her World Cup performance. During the group stage, she was on the field, just not enforcing her will in any meaningful way. You couldn’t say her play was awful, it was that we weren’t seeing her make the impact we expected. Maybe Jill Ellis wasn’t playing her high enough up the field. Or maybe she just loves showing up when the lights are brightest.
In the first knockout game against Colombia she converted a penalty kick after Wambach, known for some clutch play herself, missed one of her own. Then, when midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were forced to the bench due to accumulated yellow cards, Ellis shifted Lloyd to a more advanced offensive position for the quarterfinal vs. China. It was like someone had turned the crank on a Jack-in-the-box. Now Lloyd was springing forward, creating havoc for the defense and scoring opportunities for the Americans. She found the perfect space to head in a long ball from Julie Johnston for the only goal of the China match. However, she wasn’t done.
Yesterday in the Ali-Frazier-esque semifinal against Germany, Lloyd made her presence known from the start. Minutes after the Germans missed their first World Cup penalty kick ever (!!!), Lloyd calmly stepped up to take a PK drawn by Morgan. As she was standing there waiting, eyes intently locked on the ball and the ball only, you just knew she was making it. With the weight of the match on her shoulders, she casually slotted it home like she was depositing coins in a vending machine.
Fifteen minutes later, the match still balanced on a knife’s edge, she provided the assist to propel the Americans into the final. Watch as she drifts into space inside the box, receives the ball, and attacks the lax German defense.
I wanted her to shoot right when she got it, but Carli is calmer than me in these moments. After beating her defender to the baseline, she had unlocked the German defense for a cross that landed on Kelley O’Hara’s flying foot. The patience and poise she displayed would’ve been awe-inspiring in any situation, much less with under 25 minutes left in a World Cup semifinal against mighty Germany.
No moment is too gigantic for her, she’s proved that by now. When the game gets tight, when the stadium noise reaches that jet engine level, when the play on the field gets frantic, Lloyd stays steady, solid, and intelligent. You rarely see the 32-year-old veteran make a hurried or rushed decision. She clearly has a confidence in her ability that goes beyond any fear of failure when crunch time arrives. Which is why Lloyd has me analyzing my beliefs about clutch play again. Nerves of steel, ice in the veins, whatever it requires to come up huge in the middle of winning time, Carli Lloyd has it.