Carli Lloyd is well aware that she’s a different player now than she used to be.
At 36, of course, it is only natural. But where some players may quickly drop off a cliff as they enter their mid 30s, Lloyd is using a new role to gracefully extend one of the most decorated careers in U.S. women’s national team history.
For most of her career, Lloyd has been a midfielder. As she’ll tell you though, that hardly meant that she stuck to one defined role in the center of the park.
“I’ve played center mid alongside Shannon Boxx for so many years where one of us goes forward and one holds and vice versa. I’ve played holding mid in the 2012 Olympics, I’ve played left mid, I’ve played right mid, I’ve played attacking mid,” Lloyd said.
But as her career with the national team enters its twilight phase, Lloyd has embarked on a transition that has seen her leave the midfield entirely. Once the USWNT’s star playmaker as a No. 10, the veteran is now primarily a striker – and is playing the role mostly off the bench.
Not every two-time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year would handle such a change as well as Lloyd, who is looking at her move from focal point to role player in a philosophical way.
“Obviously with age you’ve got to change some things,” Lloyd said. “I still feel probably as fit as I’ve ever felt, as explosive as I’ve ever felt but these last couple years I’ve really been trying to train my brain in a different way.
“I’m not the Carli Lloyd from five years ago that’s just going to get the ball and start running towards goal. I’ve got to be able to play smarter with my brain.”
It’s a crossroads that every veteran is forced to confront sooner or later. As physical advantages diminish, the only way to keep up is by trading raw athletic ability for guile, positional awareness and pure understanding of the game.
Lloyd, a notoriously hardworking and studious player, is using those characteristics to ring out every ounce of production from the closing stages of her career.
“These last couple years for me personally has been studying the game and trying to evolve,” Lloyd said. “With that has been this thing where I’ve maybe had to take a couple steps backwards to go five steps forward.”
Mallory Pugh, one of the USWNT’s best hopes for the future and a player 16 years Lloyd’s junior, recognizes that the veteran’s ongoing transformation isn’t something that just any player can accomplish.
“She’s just Carli – she can do it,” Pugh said. "I think that just shows her quality. You don’t really see that a lot from players who can play the 10 role so well and then can also play the nine role so well. Credit to her that she’s made the transition perfectly … Just having her as a leader out there and just kind of following is just super inspiring.”
On Sunday night in a World Cup qualifier against Panama, Lloyd earned a rare start – her first in eight games with the national team. She responded by scoring a hat trick.
Was her dominant performance proof that her transformation is complete? Hardly, especially given the quality of the USA’s opponent on the night.
Lloyd barely even seem to be moved by scoring three against Panama (“it’s not even [about] the goals,” she said) but instead was focused on improving at her new position, and using each game as a forward to gain more experience – and to get more on film to study.
“I’ve really been dissecting the games. I’ve always been a person who watches every game that I play in and kind of dissects it and studies it, but now it’s more with my brain and less with the body,” Lloyd said.
“I know what I need to work on. I know some of the things they want and I’ve just got to be able to do it and be kind of an unpredictable No 9. I’m not going to be the standing target player, I’ve got more to offer than that and I’ve just got to continue getting better.”
Lloyd appears set to play a key role at the World Cup next summer as a 37-year-old. From there, who knows how much further her transformation will end up extending an already-stellar career.
“This isn’t the end,” Lloyd said. “I’ve got to keep climbing.”