Carli Lloyd (10) celebrates with forward Christen Press (23) after scoring a goal in the second half against Team England during the She Believes Cup in March. (Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sport)

By Michael Lewis Editor

If there is one thing the soccer universe has learned over the past 15 years or so, it’s not to count Carli Lloyd out.

After an abysmal 2007 Women’s World Cup in China, which the U.S. women’s national team finished a disappointing third, Lloyd looked at herself in the mirror and realized she did not play up to expectations – hers and others. So, she went out to improve and raise her game.

She returned to China for the 2008 Beijing Games and bounced back, tallying in extratime, a 1-0 American victory over Brazil in the gold medal match.

At the 2012 London Games, the Delran, N.J. native wasn’t even a starter at the tournament’s kickoff. But Lloyd took advantage of a teammate’s injury to become a vital part of the USWNT’s success as she became the only player in history to score in back-to-back gold medal match triumphs. USA head coach Pia Sundhage even apologized for not believing in her player.

And now in her 39th year, Lloyd is out to prove her critics and skeptics wrong as she prepares for her fourth Olympics. Well, she hasn’t been selected just yet, but it likely will be difficult for Vlatko Andonovski not to put her on the 18-player roster for the Tokyo Summer Games.

She’s one tough cookie who is focused on winning a third gold medal, demonstrating so in the USWNT’s 4-0 win over Jamaica in the Summer Series Sunday night, scoring the second fastest goal (23 seconds) in team history and becoming the oldest player to find the net (38 years, 332 days), breaking Kristine Lilly’s record.

There are skeptics who felt Lloyd, who will turn 39 on July 16 (only five days before the Summer Games kickoff on July 21), would be too old to make an impact on this U.S. team, especially since the squad would be 18 players, as opposed to a 23-player roster that the USA used en route to winning the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

After the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were pushed back to this year, soccer observers feared that would be to Lloyd’s detriment.

In contrast, she has embraced the extra time and took steps to improve her game.

“I actually feel better,” Lloyd said during a Zoom media conference call early Monday morning. “I don’t think that if it was played in 2020, a number of different things wouldn’t have happened. My family wouldn’t have been a part of it. I wouldn’t have had knee surgery. I changed up my strength program, started working with a guy back home. I have a new trainer that I do ball work with. So, I feel like I went from, thinking that I’m continuing to get better to a whole another level.

“I’ve never been this fit, fast, explosive and just my overall game I just feel like I’ve been doing so much studying of different forwards, positioning, runs, checking into the pocket, getting in behind the backline, different finishing, being better with my first touch, being better with back to goal, holding the ball up. I mean, there’s been so many things that I’ve worked on and tried to finesse in the last year or so. So, I’m actually in a better position than I was back in 2020.  I’m just really grateful and just going to keep plugging away.”

Lloyd has been able to survive and thrive in a remarkable 17-year international career by being able to adapt and evolve under several coaches. She figured she has played five different positions on the USWNT.

“Well, I’ve really only honed this position, I would say since Vlatko kind of come on board because the way that the number nine position was played a bit different with Jill [Ellis]. We didn’t high press. We didn’t do certain things. So, I feel like the way that Vlatko wants our team to play kind of just fits me. I love high pressing. I love putting the defenders and the opponents under pressure. From the time that Vlatko came on board to this day. I’ve literally just been a sponge, trying to continuously get better and evolve my game.”

You could say Lloyd went back to school, learning new and various aspects of the game to improve her finishing touch.

“I was in the classroom, learning every game,” she said. “I was figuring out my positioning, runs, having played in the league [National Women’s Soccer League] for the last seven weeks. Now, it’s just playing, and putting it all together. So I really feel like it is all coming together, and just got to keep going … Just honing another position gives me more motivation and just going to do everything I can to help the team.”

Regardless of what transpires in Tokyo, Lloyd’s legacy is secure. Besides those gold medals, she also had that astounding hat-trick within a 16-minute span in the 2015 World Cup final and has tallied 125 times in 303 international matches.

Lloyd said that when she made her USWNT debut, she envisioned three phases that would put her through to the 2016 Olympics.

“But as I got through the 2012 Olympics, the thought of having just one more cycle, I wasn’t ready,” she said. “So from that point on I knew that I wanted to go four cycles. Some bumps in the road; things didn’t always go as smooth, which is life and that’s all part of my journey.”

She explained the latest phase, in which she has made great sacrifices in her personal life. She realized the clock is ticking.

“This fourth phase for me was, was something that I really wanted to push for, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I not lived a consistent lifestyle on and off the field,” Lloyd said. “I’ve literally haven’t switched off for 17-18 years. It’s been hardcore craziness. I’m sure my husband and friends and family are going to be excited when I’m done playing, because I actually get to do things, but it’s been all worth it to me.

“You know, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I don’t have any regrets. But I have literally done everything possible to continue to play to this point. I’m feeling so good. I wish I had maybe five years left in the tank but it’s, it’s going come to a point where it’s not a physical thing with me; it’s just going to be a life decision to want to kind of start the next chapter whenever that comes.”

Lloyd has been sensitive to criticism. When the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald asked a question about her evolving game, the veteran forward bristled at him.

“I won’t make the roster, right?” Lloyd said, feeling that the writer did not have confidence in her abilities from the stories she read. “Believe me, I read it, I see everything. You got a hometown dude that can never support me but go ahead.”

A little later, she had a similar reaction with another writer – “another one,” she said while a question was asked – who supposedly has been critical of her. To her credit, Lloyd answered both questions in depth.

As for making the team, well, Andonovski wasn’t about to say Lloyd or anyone else was a lock for Tokyo. He is expected to make a roster announcement sometime after Wednesday night’s game against Nigeria in Austin, Texas.

“I don’t know if I can answer directly and I don’t think I’ll be able to answer directly about any player, not just Carli or anybody on this team until, until I really have to,” he said.  “But I will say that I was happy with her performance. Comes in scores the goal, sets the pace for the team, and does that as well. Overall, not just in this game but in the previous games, in training so I think she’s in a really good place.”

Lloyd knows that her place is in Japan, on the USA Olympic roster.