PARIS — There are questions that have been brewing for a while now: Barring a teammate’s injury or card suspension, is there anything that Carli Lloyd could do to earn a spot in the U.S.’s first-choice starting lineup during this Women's World Cup? If the final were tomorrow, would U.S. coach Jill Ellis really leave Lloyd on the bench?
Lloyd made those questions even more pertinent on Sunday by starting with a second-string front line and scoring two goals in the U.S.’s 3-0 defeat of Chile. The result gave the U.S. six points from two games and clinched a berth in the knockout stage ahead of the group finale against nemesis Sweden on Thursday.
The two-time world player of the year became the first woman ever to score in six straight World Cup games, and she now has three goals in this tournament—putting her in a tie for third in the Golden Boot race. Lloyd did a bit of everything against Chile. In the 11th minute, she called off teammate Julie Ertz and lashed a searing left-footed volley across her body to beat Chile’s remarkably good goalkeeper, Christiane Endler. And in the 35th minute, Lloyd’s thundering header off a Tierna Davidson corner kick gave the U.S. a 3-0 lead.
To put an exclamation point on all of it, the 36-year-old Lloyd even celebrated with a super-polite golf clap—an amusing nod to all the questions over whether the Americans had over-celebrated their garbage-time goals in their first game of the tournament, a 13-0 win over Thailand.
Lloyd could have scored even more goals, but she hit the crossbar with a header and sprayed a second-half penalty kick wide of the goal.
When Lloyd was asked on Sunday if she had made even more of a case to Ellis for a starting role with the varsity, she nodded her head.
“I’m trying, I’m trying,” she said. “I’m having fun, ultimately, and I think that’s the biggest thing: Just going out there and showing my ability. I’m not just making any of this up. This is the best version of me that I’ve ever been playing in my career. Whether you put me up top, whether you put me in the midfield, I can do it.
“Whether that’s coming off the bench or starting a game, I’m just trying to make an impact,” Lloyd continued. “Unfortunately, only 11 players play on the field. Coaches have to make decisions. But there’s no doubt in my mind I’m just going to stay ready and stay focused, because you never know what can happen.”
Later in the postgame interview, Lloyd turned the rhetorical screws on Ellis just a little bit harder: “These last three or four years, I’ve reinvented my whole game,” she said. “I’ve become really fit. Age isn’t a factor, my ability isn’t a factor. I’ve been fine-tuning my finishing. So the pressure isn’t really on me per se. I think maybe the pressure is on somebody else a little bit more.”
Well, then, in that case, over to you, Jill Ellis!
At the postgame press conference, Lloyd’s thoughts were relayed to Ellis, who offered her response.
“That’s why she’s playing, because she comes in and makes differences,” Ellis said. “I think what you get a sense of with this team on the inside is every player wants to play maximum minutes. That should be every player that should want that, even the goalkeepers that didn’t play today. You ask them that question, they’re going to say, ‘I’m ready, I’m prepared to play,’ and that’s what you want as a coach for sure.
“I think the important thing for us is players are ready to do any role,” Ellis continued, “And the fact she’s now scored three goals? Awesome. Fantastic, ready, energized. I don’t think she could be in a better spot in terms of that. But I also know Carli is ready to do whatever it takes for this team. It’s a great problem. You want to have hot forwards in tournaments, and I think they’re scoring goals, which is a good feeling for them, so I’m happy.”
It might be helpful at this point to remember what happened in the 2015 Women's World Cup quarterfinals. U.S. players Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were suspended on yellow cards, and Ellis was forced to use Lloyd higher up the field against China. It worked like a charm, and Lloyd stayed there the rest of the tournament, scoring a hat trick in the final. Or you could go back to the 2012 Olympics, when Lloyd didn’t start the first game but came on after an injury to Shannon Boxx and ended up starting the rest of the tournament, and scoring two goals in the final.
At this point, it’s going to take a similar suspension or a U.S. injury to get Lloyd in the lineup if the final were tomorrow. Ellis’s approach to Lloyd, circa 2019, is this: You’re much more of a center forward these days than a midfielder. You’re definitely not a winger, and we play a 4-3-3 now. So it’s either you or Alex Morgan in the lineup at the No. 9 spot against quality opponents, and right now the younger Morgan, who’s in good form, is the choice. And if I were to put you in the midfield, it would probably have to be in place of Rose Lavelle, and Lavelle has the ball skills we need to break down teams.
Honestly, it’s a line of thinking that makes sense, and it seems unlikely that Lloyd will be able to do anything during this tournament to break through that barrier—unless there’s an injury or a card suspension, and then all bets are off.