This summer’s USWNT World Cup triumph was portrayed by sports media as something of a fairy tale ride. It seemed like the entire country took joy in watching the U.S. Women ruthlessly dominate the rest of the world on the way to the crown. And the celebrations and happy feelings have lingered ever since.
But because the World Cup represented the highest possible level of competitive sports, the reality was never that simple, and the USWNT run couldn’t have been a fairy tale with a perfect ending. Now that the celebrations have finished and the euphoria has died down, we’re getting a better sense of what really happened on the way to the top.
During a recent appearance on ESPN’s Laughter Permitted with Julie Foudy podcast, Carli Lloyd did not hold back about how she felt playing a reserve role on the World Cup team:
“I’m not going to lie and sugarcoat it. It was absolutely the worst time of my life. It affected my relationship with my husband, with friends. It really was rock bottom of my entire career. But somehow, you see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I can honestly say I’m having more fun now playing than I ever have in my career. I think I just learned a lot throughout it...
“There’s no denying it. I deserved to be on the field that whole World Cup, but I wasn’t. And I think I’ve grown as a person, as a player. It sucked. It absolutely sucked.”
That’s a lot to digest, especially in the wake of an historic championship. For one thing, Lloyd’s honest response has the potential to provoke outrage among any number of hot take artists who want to go on ESPN and scream “Selfish!” or “What about the team?” or any random cliché that qualifies as sports journalism because the volume goes to 11.
On the surface, Lloyd’s hard feelings appear especially problematic when contrasted with the rest of her teammates, who continue to revel in the joyful aftermath of their world championship. And there’s no better example of reveling in that joy than Megan Rapinoe.
At the same time that Lloyd revealed her inner demons, Rapinoe got to attend the 40th Annual Salute to Women in Sports Awards and appear the picture of contentment as she spoke to People Magazine about her relationship with Sue Bird:
“I love being a WAG and a superfan. I think it’s AMAZING and to be able to, you know, watch your partner exceed and excel and be exactly who they are in a public forum. That’s pretty special...
“Neither of us are jealous or weird about each other’s careers. We are just kind of there to support each other.”
It appears that Rapinoe has mastered the art of being humble and magnanimous. And in the sports fandom landscape, whenever there’s a contrast like this, there are endless “Tony from Ciceros” ready to call in to sports talk radio to yell something about how “Megan Rapinoe could teach Carli Lloyd a lesson!”
Except such a reactionary view completely ignores the context of where both soccer greats are in their respective careers. Rapinoe is at the very apex of hers, justifiably winning the Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA Best Women’s Player in the World, and quite possibly the Nobel Prize in Physics for the manner in which her shots on goal bend the laws of space and time. In addition, she has become the face of USWNT activism and there are even multiple stories about her hair.
In other words, if a sports story had a happier ending than Megan Rapinoe’s, it would usually have “Air Bud” in the title. It’s absolutely right to commend Rapinoe for being so gracious and selfless when discussing how much she values her wife’s athletic career. But it’s also important to remember that given the level of fame and celebrity she has already achieved, she’s in an easier position to be that way.
Now consider where Lloyd is coming from. At 37, she undoubtedly knows that she’s on the back end of her career. But part of being an elite athlete means that Lloyd also believes that her insane skills will be able to put off the ravages of time--as long as she’s still able to take the field.
After a career marked by a 2012 Olympic Gold Medal and a hat trick in the 2015 World Cup Final, Lloyd certainly qualifies as one of the greatest athletes in her sport’s history. So when a combination of a prior ankle injury and adapting to a position change left her on the bench for the 2019 tournament, you can understand why her pride would have been wounded.
As Lloyd noted in the podcast, “I remember one [conversation] in particular where [Jill Ellis] told me I’ve done it all. ‘You have nothing left to prove.’ And I said that I have a lot to prove. I’m going to prove until the day I’m done playing that I can be the best I can be.”
Since she’s done that for her entire career, it had to be immensely frustrating for a player of Lloyd’s caliber to be unable to meet her own sky-high expectations through the limitations of her role on the bench. And undoubtedly, the next time Rapinoe finds her next challenge on the pitch, she will say something similar about what motivates her to keep going.
The reality of sports at the highest level is that no matter what an athlete is able to achieve in their career, there’s always another game to play and another tournament to win. And part of what drives elite athletes like Lloyd and Rapinoe is the ongoing quest to keep proving themselves and to scale that next mountain.
Megan Rapinoe is operating from her career’s summit and is being understandably praised for it. It’s easier for her to spread that praise around to others because in the afterglow of the World Cup, it appears that she still has nothing but greatness in her.
By contrast, Carli Lloyd is confronting a bit of her athletic mortality after a career of similar brilliance. When that happens, it’s a lot harder for an athlete like Lloyd to ignore the voice in her head, insisting that she can still be as great as she ever was — if only she were given a chance.