This is a different Carli Lloyd.
One gold-medal-clinching goal against Brazil at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing can alter things.
“One goal can change your career,” Lloyd said. “It was one of the biggest moments of my career, but it was also just the beginning.”
Three years removed from the “goal of a lifetime,” the midfielder is now a key member of the U.S. team that begins play at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany on Tuesday.
As great as the goal in China was, however, Lloyd concedes she almost fell into the trap that has ensnared many athletes suddenly thrust into a moment of greatness.
“(Beijing) was a huge goal, and I’ll always be the one who scored it,” she said. “But now looking back, I think after that, I relaxed a little. I finished at the top, but it doesn’t take much to drop off.
“At some point, I realized I needed to step my game up to a next level.”
Lloyd’s struggles with the Chicago Red Stars in the 2009 debut season of Women’s Professional Soccer convinced her to make a stronger commitment to her fitness, so she altered her diet and training routine.
In 2010, the Rutgers graduate signed with Sky Blue FC, which played its home games at her alma mater, but an ankle injury cost her the WPS season and her duties with the national team. She returned to national team duty in September, just in time to begin preparations for the 2011 World Cup.
“(National team coach Pia Sundhage) believed in me, but it was crunch time,” said Lloyd, who will turn 29 next month. “I started to see the results of truly being fit. If I keep going and increase my fitness more, I’ll be able to help the team so much more.”
Also gone from Lloyd are some of the insecurities she had three summers ago, of feeling as if she still had to prove she deserved her place with the national team.
“It takes a little bit,” said veteran midfielder Shannon Boxx, who plays alongside Lloyd. “Carli was so good coming in and you saw her skills and the potential. I just don’t think initially she got the opportunities to shine. (Sundhage) gave her opportunities and her confidence grew. The qualities are so unique to this team.”
Boxx is a defensive midfielder. She said Lloyd finally has the confidence and trust to utilize her skills as an attacking midfielder.
“We started off butting heads a little bit because we are both strong personalities,” Lloyd said of her chemistry with Boxx. “But by ’08, there was no other player I’d rather be alongside.
“It’s a very good relationship, and you can’t be successful if you don’t have that on the field.”
That cohesion has helped Lloyd become a more creative playmaker.
“It’s funny, because you look back at little increments in your career,” Lloyd said. “In college, it was all wait for that ball on the attack, dribble past a couple of people and shoot. It wasn’t really about reading the game.
“That’s what I started to learn when I first got with the senior team in 2005. It’s developed skill to be able to play your teammate into a good spot, doing one thing and then kind of knowing what the next two or three moves will be.”
Sundhage said Lloyd’s outstanding dribbling and ability to shoot with either foot make her a wild card for other teams to contend with.
“Carli is unpredictable,” Sundhage said. “She is quick and can make runs at players in the midfield. When she has her rhythm, she sees not just the first or second option, but the third option, also. The way she can read the game works to her advantage.”
Sundhage said the only thing she asks of Lloyd is that she be more consistent.
“Sometimes she zooms out and can disappear for a while,” Sundhage said. “The thing is for her level of ability to bring out the best performance. Sometimes it is too big of a difference between when she is really good and when she is bad.”
Sundhage said she wants Lloyd to be a better player off the ball, so she can create more openings to receive passes and get possession.
Lloyd said it is all about her level of confidence and concentration.
“There are some players that play and kind of keep it simple,” Lloyd said. “For me, I’ve learned to take risks. I’ve learned to keep possession, and now combining the two and finding the right moments to take those higher percentage risks. Maybe I’m someone who when defenders think I’m going wide, I’ll slot it inside to a forward.
“It’s fun. Because (Boxx) is such a strong defender, I get some free rein to go forward and try to create a little bit.”
The United States has won three of the four Olympic tournaments, including the past two, but it has not won a World Cup since 1999.
Playing on its home turf, two-time defending champion Germany will be only one of several obstacles. Team USA opens in Group C with North Korea, Colombia and Sweden.
“It’s up in the air,” Lloyd said. “On any day, any team can win a game. The gap has closed tremendously. It’s not going to be easy.”