Carli Lloyd proves she’s the Women’s World Cup hero she always knew she would be

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After Sunday’s otherworldly performance, Lloyd shared a personal moment she had back home in southern New Jersey last month before departing for the World Cup. Lloyd was by herself on the humble, unassuming fields of raggedy grass in Medford, N.J., headphones in her ears while she ran sprints. Lloyd had a moment, she said, when she was daydreaming of playing in the World Cup final again. In that dream, she scored four goals, which by all realistic accounts of a soccer match – especially a World Cup final between two world-class teams – is an audacious pipe dream.

But there sat Lloyd on Sunday, having just become the first player to score a hat trick in a Women’s World Cup final, and it never seemed like it couldn’t happen. It felt like Lloyd could have scored six goals on the day if she were given the time; the same could be said for her teammates.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis also envisioned winning the World Cup, just not that emphatically. “Five is kind of a dream come true,” she said.

Even 10 days ago, the United States winning this Women’s World Cup title seemed unlikely. “I feel like this core of these 23 players and this staff have believed more than anybody else in this country,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan told me on Friday. She is right. That belief among players is all that the team ever really needed, and they told everyone all along.

In the face of team-wide criticism following an ugly round-of-16 victory over Colombia, Lloyd stepped up and led like a captain. (Lloyd and Abby Wambach rotated the armband throughout the tournament. Both wore it at one point on Sunday, but the 40-year-old Rampone walked off the field one last time at a World Cup with the armband around her bicep.)

Ahead of the quarterfinal match against China – which was the turning point of this World Cup for the United States – Lloyd faced the TV cameras and the scrutinizing questions all that week – just as she did all tournament – in Ottawa.

“We all know we’re not playing our best football,” she conceded then.

“Our best is yet to come,” she promised.

“I need to get the ball and I need to run at players, I need to create stuff,” she implored. “I need to find a way to impact the game, no matter how it’s going.”

All of those things happened. U.S. coach Jill Ellis, first by force due to suspensions and then by choice, changed her approach and pushed Lloyd up higher on the field, giving her the freedom for which she longed – the freedom which had delivered two Olympic gold medals and now, ultimately, a World Cup title to the United States.

Lloyd speaks often of her desire to be the best midfielder in the world. On Sunday, she proved that such a designation would be a disservice; to just call her a midfielder is too limiting.

“She was obviously the best forward in the world, the way she performed tonight,” Rampone said.

On this day, Lloyd stated loud and clear her case as the world’s best player.

“It’s a surreal moment,” she said. “It’s been amazing. We just wrote history today and brought this World Cup trophy home, which is unbelievable.”

But really, it’s all believable when Lloyd is on the field.