VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Wildfires. They sent their smoke into this emerald city on Sunday, loosing a gauzy haze over the once-blue sky that filtered in through the open roof of the stadium where the USA and Japan played the Women’s World Cup final. The place smelled vaguely like a campfire, and you realized what can happen when a single spark sets off a natural phenomenon, a force that’s out of control, overwhelming.
On July 5, 2015, on a patch of turf in the heart of this smoky Canadian city, Carli Lloyd became that spark in a World Cup final, setting off her own natural phenomenon that blew you away with its force and grandeur. Four U.S. goals in the first 16 minutes of a World Cup final? Three of them by Lloyd? And the last of those strikes from, of all places, the halfway line?
“Surreal,” said Abby Wambach after the 5-2 victory and winning her long-awaited first World Cup title. “Four goals in 16 minutes? Literally, I don’t even know how that happens, especially in a World Cup final.”
“Pinch me, wake me up,” coach Jill Ellis said is what she was thinking.
“So crazy,” said Meghan Klingenberg. “It’s the most ridiculous game I’ve ever been a part of.”
“I feel like I blacked out in the first 30 minutes of that game,” said Lloyd herself. “It’s just crazy.”
And you know what’s really crazy? Lloyd said she actually under-delivered on her visualization of how the World Cup final would play out. She saw herself scoring four goals, not three. Not long before the World Cup, Lloyd was training on her own one day near her home in New Jersey outside Philadelphia. She was running sprints at her usual spot, the field of the mighty Medford Strikers, and she zoned out at one point.
“I visualized playing in a World Cup final and scoring four goals,” she said. “It sounds pretty funny, but that’s what it’s all about. At the end of the day, you can be physically strong, you can have all the tools out there, but if your mental state isn’t good enough, you can’t bring yourself to bigger and better things.”
You could say this was a bigger and better thing.
“Carli’s performance,” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, “was as good as any performance in a World Cup final by any man or female.”
The viral highlight of Lloyd’s strike from midfield, when she looked up and saw Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori off her line, will live on in the memory of anyone who saw it. It required an audacity even to attempt such a thing, much less to put it in the back of the net in a World Cup final.
“I’ve dreamed of scoring a shot like that,” Lloyd said. “I did it once when I was a little bit younger on the national team in a training environment. But very rarely do you just wind up and hit it. When you’re feeling good mentally and physically, those plays are just instincts.”
Said Megan Rapinoe of Lloyd’s moonshot: “Individual brilliance. I’m like, ‘Carli, why are you shooting from that far? Oh my God, it’s going in!’ A lot of players are audacious and do things they shouldn’t. But to know when to do it and have a sense for that is amazing.”
With six goals in this World Cup, Lloyd deservedly won the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player, and she’s an odds-on favorite to be the 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year. But she wasn’t the U.S.’s only standout performer in what will be remembered as a total team effort.
The U.S. defense, a back-five fortress of Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Klingenberg, Ali Krieger and Hope Solo, gave up just three goals all tournament and were the biggest single upgrade over the 2011 team that came up just short against Japan. The addition of Morgan Brian to the central midfield brought out the best in Lloyd and Lauren Holiday, who scored her own important goal early against Japan on Sunday.
And the wide play of Rapinoe and Tobin Heath (another goal-scorer Sunday) was steady in this tournament. The U.S. played its best two games against its two most difficult opponents, Germany and Japan.
“I just knew these players could deliver,” said Ellis. “I said to them in the semifinal game, these players were born for big moments. This is what they relish. For me, it’s no surprise that as the teams get harder and the pressure gets bigger, this team gets better.”
Big Game Carli has always been the epitome of that special American quality. Yes, a tactical change allowed her to rule over this tournament. But there’s an ineffable mental quality that Lloyd possesses, a go-for-broke self-belief that only the great ones have.
On a smoky night in Vancouver, she expressed that quality in full, unleashing a wildfire of her own, and it was a remarkable thing to witness.