According to Carli Lloyd, this is Phase 2 of her U.S. National Team career. And basically that means taking her game to the next level. The fuel for this transition? Increased fitness of body and mind, increased patience and increased awareness.
“Sometimes you have to take a few steps backward in order to go forward,” said Lloyd, who struggled through a difficult club season in 2009 with the Chicago Red Stars, rededicated herself to fitness over the next seven months, then broke her ankle early in the 2010 season while playing with the Sky Blue FC, knocking her out of action for all but five games of the year. “I am looking at my career so far in two parts. The first was from when I debuted until the 2008 Olympics. And the second is after the Olympics until now. In 2009, something just clicked. I came to better understand how fitness can impact my performance. I knew that the sky was the limit on my fitness and the fitter I was, the more I could do on the field.”
It was her increased fitness that allowed her to bounce back quickly from the ankle injury once she rejoined the U.S. team in September of 2010. The time off also changed her perception of the game, and her role in it, for the better.
In the past, Lloyd described her style of play as risk-reward, but with perhaps a little too much risk and not quite enough reward. In the past she might have forced the ball toward goal with a pass that might be cut off or a dribble that might be dispossessed, but now she is patiently trying to keep the ball and probe for openings before striking with a scything pass, a slaloming dribble or a thunderous shot.
“Being out for five months with my ankle, I had the chance to watch a lot of games and it kind of helped me look at things differently,” said Lloyd. “When I came back, because of the injury, I wasn’t quite the same player. It hurt to kick with my left foot for a while, so I had to adjust my game, which was actually a blessing. I started playing one and two-touch much more and I think I became smarter with the ball and because of that more effective with my decision making.”
So far this year, Lloyd is playing with a confidence and intelligence on the field that is allowing her to dominate games on both sides of the ball. As the fulcrum of the U.S. attack along with central-midfield partner Shannon Boxx, she is taking more responsibility on her shoulders and has scored in five of the seven matches the USA has played so far this year.
“I had a high coming off the 2008 Olympics, but after my experience in Chicago I was a little disappointed in myself,” said Lloyd. “After that season ended, I spent a month and half doing double-days of training and fitness and for the first month I didn’t even touch a ball. I was really happy with how things were going heading into the 2010 WPS season, but then I broke my ankle. I was pretty upset because I was starting to see the results of being really fit, and I felt I was going to have a great WPS season, but things don’t always go as planned.”
That’s not the case for 2011 as her hard work is paying off. After the 2008 Olympics, she changed her diet, lost weight and leaned out, allowing her to keep achieving greater fitness goals. Lloyd has taken her increased fitness and has been motoring all over the field this year, getting into nasty tackles, making dynamic runs, feeding teammates and scoring goals herself. On the USA’s most recent endurance test, she scored a personal best.
“That happens as a player, you grow and figure out what works and how to get better and play smarter,” said Lloyd. “Each camp I come in feeling fitter and fitter and I just want to keep that going. When I’m fit, anything is attainable.”
Lloyd’s next step as a player comes at a perfect time for the USA with just a few months until the Women’s World Cup kicks off. It has become clear that when Lloyd plays well, the U.S. team is even more difficult to beat.
“My mindset now is to try to become a true playmaker, which maybe I haven’t been in the past,” said Lloyd. “You watch all these center mids all over the world and how they can dictate the tempo for 90 minutes, and I think I am finally getting to that point. I’m trying to make good decisions in the midfield, whether we need to keep the ball or take a risk.”
Another thing that has changed is Lloyd’s role on the team. In the past, she and Boxx have pretty much shared the workload in the center of the field in regards to attacking and defending. Now, U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage has asked her to play a little higher, get closer to the goal and get more scoring chances.
“Pia is really encouraging me to make diagonal runs behind the back line,” said Lloyd. “She is encouraging me to combine more and make overlapping runs with the outside mids. Really, it’s a free reign in attacking. I’m basically playing the same style as before, but because of my increased fitness level, I can make an impact at a higher level in all these areas. Pia has really stressed the importance of getting the ball as much as possible and really creating things on the field.”
“With Carli, you can start with her presence in the air,” said Sundhage. “She is really good defensively and in the attack and that helps her game overall. If you want to have a greater impact on the game, you have to be good on both sides of the ball and her defending helps her in the attack as often she is the one winning the ball. The other thing is, she can change the point of attack with both feet and shoot with both feet and she has become more consistent and accurate. She has all the tools. She might not be the fastest player, but she is very quick and dynamic with or without the ball and combined with her great balance, that makes her very successful in the attack. The bottom line is if you are fit, you can use your tools and become more involved in the game. The more involved with the game you are, the more fit you will become. It’s a win-win situation.”
Lloyd is a player who holds such high expectations for herself that it’s often hard to reach them. That can have a negative impact for some players. Not Lloyd. It continues to drive her and she’s getting closer to being the player she wants to be.
“I want the pressure of being an important player, I embrace it and enjoy it,” said Lloyd. “The harder I can work, the more tackles I can get in, the better I can keep our possession, the more the team will feed off that and we can feed off each other.”
To change anything about ones mindset, body or style of play can be extremely difficult. Full credit goes to Lloyd for making strides in all three areas.
“Since I’ve come back from injury, Pia and the coaches have noticed a difference in my play,” said Lloyd, who had taken quite a few meetings with the coaches and watched a ton of video in hopes of improving her game. “I’m embracing the role Pia has placed on me. If the team is losing the ball too much, I have to find it and dictate our rhythm. I’ve got aspirations of how I want to be as a player and that just ties into everything about helping make this team successful.”