PARIS — Of course Carli Lloyd isn’t happy.
She’s worked her butt off for the better part of 20 years, never once dogging it at a training session and spending countless more hours working on her own. If not for her, the U.S. women wouldn’t have gold medals from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and it was her hat trick that sparked the American romp to the World Cup title in 2015.
Yet here she is, coming off the bench at her fourth World Cup.
“If I was satisfied with that, I really shouldn’t be here because that’s just not who I am as a person and a player,” Lloyd said Friday. “I know that my ability is there. I know that if called upon and needing to play 90 minutes, I can do it. There’s honestly nothing there that’s holding me back except for the coach’s decision.”
That last part is the kind of statement that could tear a team apart, forcing players to take sides and spoiling the chemistry that has been months, even years, in the making. It could create such a distraction the team combusts well short of its goal.
And maybe if Lloyd were a different type of person, the U.S. women would have reason for concern. But she isn’t. So they don't.
Lloyd might not be happy with her "super sub" role, but she wants a second World Cup title even more than she wants to start. And she’ll do whatever coach Jill Ellis asks in order to get it.
The Americans play Chile on Sunday in their second Group F game.
“I haven’t sat here and pouted around and been a horrible teammate,” Lloyd said. “I’ve showed up every single day at training and been the hardest-working player I can possibly be and been respectful of that decision. But also, when my chances have come, I’ve tried to seize those and take those opportunities.”
She has six goals in the last five U.S. games. With her goal in the 92nd minute of Tuesday night’s 13-0 rout of Thailand, she matched a World Cup record with at least one goal in five consecutive games, dating to the 2015 tournament.
“Whether she’s a starter or coming off the bench, she changes the game,” Ellis said last month.
Carli Lloyd talks with Thailand goalkeeper Sukanya Chor Charoenying after their match Tuesday. (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)
So why isn’t Lloyd starting? Numbers, mostly.
Much of it has to do with the wealth of riches the U.S. has, particularly at forward. Ellis’ preferred starting front line is Alex Morgan, she of the five goals against Thailand; Megan Rapinoe; and Tobin Heath. For Lloyd to start, one of them would have to come off the bench.
But who would it be?
Morgan is one of, if not the best player in the world, and her goalapalooza Tuesday night shows she’s finally in peak form for a World Cup. (She was a relative newcomer in 2011, and nursing injuries in 2015.) Rapinoe is an incredible playmaker, and her sizzling services are unmatched. Set pieces are a big factor in major tournaments, and Rapinoe is essential to those.
And Heath is Heath. In addition to scoring goals, her dazzling, ankle-breaking footwork has ripped holes in many a defense that the United States can then exploit.
Lloyd is also the oldest player on the U.S. team, a month shy of her 37th birthday.
Now, there are no signs Lloyd has lost any of her speed or agility, and the only people who would question her fitness need their own eyes checked. But Ellis has always been conscious of overloading her older players.
Shannon Boxx played just 16 minutes in 2015, as did Christie Rampone. Abby Wambach played in all seven games, but started only three. In the final three games, soccer’s all-time leading scorer did not come on until the 79th minute or later.
By using Lloyd in measured doses, Ellis ensures she’ll be at peak effectiveness every time she steps on the field. Which has to be completely demoralizing for opponents.
Imagine trying to corral Morgan for 60 or so minutes and how relieved you’d feel when she goes off, only to realize the player coming in to replace her is Lloyd. That’s a gut punch, and one no other team can deliver.
“I know I can help this team,” Lloyd said. “I think Jill knows that I can help this team. I think my teammates know that I can help the team.”
Lloyd might start a game or two, she might spend the entire World Cup as a super sub. What matters most is that she'll never be a malcontent.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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