By Michael Lewis | June 19, 2019, 2:45 p.m. (ET)

Carli Lloyd celebrates after scoring a goal at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup on June 16, 2019 in Paris.

 

DEAUVILLE, France -- If we have learned anything about Carli Lloyd during her illustrious career, it’s to never tell her no.

Former U.S. women’s national coach Pia Sundhage learned that at the Olympic Games London 2012, when she benched Lloyd for the start of the tournament. Shannon Boxx’s injury gave Lloyd an opportunity to return to the lineup, and the Delran, New Jersey, native went on to tally twice in the gold-medal match, a 2-1 U.S. triumph.

“I was on a mission this Olympics to prove everybody wrong, and that’s what I did,” Lloyd said at the time. “I knew I had a big job, had to seize the moment. I worked hard, and when some tells me I’m not good enough to start I’m going to prove them wrong. I was probably the most consistent player all tournament.”

Like many of Lloyd’s opponents, Sundhage had no defense.

“She has proven that I was wrong,” she said. “I am happy she was more clever than I was.”

Fast forward seven years to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, taking place now, where the 36-year-old Lloyd has found herself playing a subservient role. She began the United States’ 13-0 opening victory against Thailand on the bench but came on as a second-half substitute and scored the final goal in stoppage time. With an almost entirely new starting lineup against Chile on Sunday, Lloyd started in the 3-0 victory and recorded two more goals and could have had a hat trick had she not botched her penalty kick.

Still, Lloyd has put her best foot forward to convince coach Jill Ellis she deserves to be in the Starting XI on a regular basis.

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” she said after Sunday’s game. “I’m having fun ultimately. That’s the biggest thing. Going out there, showing my ability. I’m not just making any other self. This is the best version of me that I have ever been playing in my career. Whether you put me up top, whether you put me in the midfield, I can do it. Whether that’s coming off the bench, starting a game, just trying to make an impact. Unfortunately, only 11 players play on the field, coaches have to make decisions. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to have to stay ready, stay focused because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Even before a ball was kicked at France 2019, Lloyd already had established one of the greatest legacies in the women’s game.

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She scored the game-winner in back-to-back Olympic finals.

She connected on that astounding hat trick in the opening sweet 16 minutes of the Americans’ 5-2 triumph over then defending world champion Japan at the 2015 World Cup. That included an audacious, chip shot goal for the ages from midfield.

And, she is adding to that legacy. After finding the net in both U.S. wins here, Lloyd has scored in six consecutive World Cup matches, a record for men or women.

Perhaps she will extend that incredible streak to seven games when the U.S. meets Sweden in its final Group F match Thursday in Le Havre.

“The fact that she’s now scored three goals ... I don’t think she could be in a better spot,” Ellis said. “I also know Carli is ready to do whatever it takes for this team. It’s a great problem. You want to have hot forwards in a tournament and it’s a great feeling for them to score goals, so I’m happy.”

No doubt that Lloyd has that special drive to go with her immense talent.

At an age where many have retired, Lloyd — the oldest player on the U.S. team — has been nothing but an international marvel. If there has been a drop-off in her play, it has been difficult to measure.

Her age is only a number.

Besides her God-given and well-honed talent, Lloyd’s secret has been known to the rest of the soccer universe: she works hard and preps like no one else.

It began in college and kicked into a new gear in 2007, after an utterly forgettable World Cup. Lloyd, then 25, decided to remake herself, training at a different level and changing her mental approach and attitude with personal trainer James Galanis.

“I’ve been in form for the last couple of years,” she said. “It’s just I’m banging in more goals. You start to peak as you get closer (to a tournament). There is a certain strategy that goes into my training. I didn’t just become a soccer player two, three years ago and just turned into great overnight. I’ve been in form and I’ve been getting more minutes and it’s up to me to seize those opportunities.”

Even when they are from the bench

It all comes down to preparation for Lloyd, who admits that she doesn’t “scout” the opposition from the bench that much.

“It’s not necessarily what I’m focusing on in that minute, it’s the days before,” she said. “What am I getting in my head that I want to do. It’s not sitting on the bench and eyeing up the opponent. A little bit of that. It’s being ready. It’s training and being the best, hardest working player every single day. That’s what it is. And when you get those moments, it’s instinct and everything kind of kicks in and takes over. You just can’t turn it on and off. It’s just continuous preparation on my end.”

And oh yeah, one more thing. Please don’t mention the phrase “super sub” to Lloyd.

“I’m not here to be a super sub, plain and simple. That’s not the type of person I am,” she said. “I’m a fighter. I’ll fight ‘til the end. I know that my age isn’t a factor. My ability isn’t a factor. I feel the fittest I’ve ever felt; sharpest I’ve ever felt. I’ve reinvented my game the last three or four years. Instead of the athletic, powerful Carli, just head down and go to goal, I’m a way better soccer player. I feel that my mind is the mind of a 36-year-old at the moment, but my body feels like the body of a 26-year-old. There’s no doubt in my mind that it doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you finish.”

And man, Lloyd knows something about finishing. She has 10 goals in 20 World Cup matches.

Who knows how many more goals she will celebrate by the time this tournament ends. It will only add to her unmatchable legacy.

“I know what’s at stake. I knew what was at stake when I was going into the final,” she said of 2015. “I knew there could be an opportunity there. I’ve just gotten to the point where the bigger pressure, the more it just becomes instinct for me, the more I go up three levels. I know what’s at stake. I know this can be a storybook ending. I know the pen is in my hand ultimately. I need chances and minutes. I know that the story’s not over. That’s the beauty of it. It’s going to be up to me. The only person that will get in my way is myself. As long as I keep staying true to what I do every single day, working hard, being as good as I can for my teammates, the rest will fall into place.”

Usually into the back of the net.

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.