VILA REAL DE SANTO ANTÓNIO, Portugal — Wearing a smile and a shiner under her left eye, Carli Lloyd didn’t mince words after the U.S.’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory against Norway on Wednesday in the Algarve Cup.
“I’m sick of losing,” she said. “I’m sick of all the naysayers out there saying, ‘You’re [only] second in the world, the U.S. is done, they had a horrible Algarve Cup last year.’ I’m a winner, and I want to go out there and win.”
In a moment that called to mind the old-school mentality of the great U.S. women’s teams, Lloyd took charge of the game in the second half. Moving into a central position from her wide role, she lashed an unstoppable shot from outside the box with her left (non-dominant) foot, scoring a goal that changed the course of the game. Minutes later, Lloyd had the confidence to take what turned out to be the game-winning penalty, firing high and hard into the upper-right corner.
The U.S. doesn’t lose games very often, but it had suffered two defeats in the last three months, one to Brazil in December and another to France last month. After Norway took the lead against the run of play just before halftime, the U.S. could have panicked. Instead, Lloyd decided to make the difference. It was a display of toughness reflected in her black eye, which she said she suffered in a closed-door scrimmage earlier this week against Japan.
“Carli is the mentality of this team,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, who started in goal in her first game back after a 30-day suspension. “She holds everybody accountable: You get in hard for tackles, you win balls, you do what you can to help this team. And she doesn’t let you get away with anything less. That’s a true leader.”
Yet in recent games, Lloyd’s position on the field had left you scratching your head. Why was coach Jill Ellis putting her out wide in the midfield? Lloyd seems better-suited for a central role, and against France and England she often appeared peripheral. But to hear Lloyd and Ellis after Wednesday’s game, there’s more freedom to her role than many had thought.
“We’re asking both our wide players [Lloyd and Christen Press] to play in those inside spaces and then make decisions to go wide,” said Ellis. “She’s more natural there. When I played her in the No. 8 role, she kind of fell into that pocket a lot. I like her higher up the field, and I think she’s a good enough soccer player to figure out when to fade wide and when to stay in.”
“It’s really just about finding the space,” said Lloyd. “I’m not a traditional flank player who’s on the touchline staying wide … I think ultimately it’s kind of a freedom role. I can find myself on the left or the right, helping [Lauren Holiday] and Morgan [Brian] in the buildup and just finding those pockets. What I do best is getting the ball, facing up and firing shots. I’m trying to adapt to it, figure it out and not think too much.”
This U.S. team is still a work in progress. It could still use a dedicated defensive midfielder to help prevent the kind of goal the Americans conceded on Wednesday, when Brian and left back Chalupny were unable to stop a solid Norwegian counter-attack and cross from the U.S.’s left side. (Chalupny came off at halftime, and her replacement, Meghan Klingenberg, didn’t have similar issues in the second half.)
The best candidate to be that defensive midfielder might be Julie Johnston, who got a surprise start at center back with Christie Rampone and Whitney Engen both dealing with injuries. The U.S. back line was exposed on the Norwegian goal, but on the whole Johnston showed speed, smarts and good physicality that could be useful in a pure DM role.
But works in progress are incremental, and Lloyd’s reminder of the old U.S. mentality will be what’s remembered from a night in the far southeast corner of this country, in a tiny stadium wedged between the beach, a lighthouse and the river separating Spain and Portugal.
“When it comes to making plays and making things happen, Carli seems to either be on the back end of plays or on the finishing end of plays,” said forward Abby Wambach. “It just shows how much she’s worked over the years. She wants to be one of the best players in the world, and to be able to do that you have to be making plays like she did tonight … Leading to this World Cup, she’s poised to give us a better opportunity of winning.”
In other words, Lloyd was sick of losing. And so she made sure it didn’t happen again.