Following a week of training camp in Orlando, Florida, the U.S. Women’s National Team headed to Connecticut (where it was met with an almost 50-degree drop in temperature) to continue its preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games with a pair of friendly matches against up-and-coming South American powerhouse Colombia on April 6 and 10. So far in 2016, the USA has compiled a 9-0-0 record and outscored opponents 32-1 as U.S. head coach Jill Ellis and her staff continue evaluations to eventually choose the 18-player roster for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Three players have played major roles in the scoring output for the WNT so far this year as forwards Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn, and midfielder Carli Lloyd, have racked up a combined 22 goals. The combination of Lloyd and Morgan are responsible for five of the USA’s goals this year, with one scoring and the other providing the assist, while Dunn tied a WNT record with five goals in a match.
“It’s great to see players like Alex and Crystal stepping up,” Lloyd said. “I think Alex is doing well and really seems to be getting her form back, and it’s great to see Crystal bounce back even stronger and better after not making the World Cup squad last year. It’s great to continue to build that relationship with one another and it’s all about being able to find each other, see what works best, and be able to combine. Obviously, the three of us have been producing and doing well, but I think overall the team is in a really good position and playing well this year.”
Lloyd, the U.S. WNT co-captain, is on a scoring roll that began when she tallied against Colombia in the USA’s 2-0 victory during the Round of 16 at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. Since then, Lloyd has scored 23 goals in 22 matches, and has continued her success from 2015 when she notched 18 goals, a career-high in a calendar year and eight more than the next highest on the roster.
With 86 goals in her career, Lloyd is not only the highest scoring player on the current roster, but she is also the USA’s highest active goal scorer. The players ahead of her -- Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Milbrett and Michelle Akers – are all retired. Lloyd is also the highest-scoring midfielder in U.S. history, although she has scored 21 of her last 23 goals playing as more of a withdrawn forward.
Before her goal against Colombia on June 22 kicked off her amazing run, Lloyd had only scored two goals for the USA that year, albeit big ones, both coming against Norway in the Algarve Cup to bring the USA from behind for a 2-1 win and propel the Americans to the tournament title. Lloyd says it was during that Colombia game that a switch flipped and her game was off to a whole new level, a level that despite her current success, she is working hard to exceed once again.
“For me, I think that when I get going with goals, they tend to just keep coming,” said Lloyd. “It’s been a focal point of mine and I think that over the years I’ve earned the respect of coaches to continue to give me the freedom to push higher up on the field, which has allowed me to be involved in more goal scoring opportunities and being in the final third. I think that before the World Cup, I hadn’t really scored as much as I would have like and wasn’t getting myself into the box, and once the Colombia game came, and after each game, I just kept telling myself ‘keep it going.’
After her record year in 2015, Lloyd has showed no signs of slowing down through the first three months of 2016.
“It’s crazy to think that I have seven goals this year but I know there is more in me and I know that I’m definitely nowhere near peak form where I would like to be or where I was in the World Cup,” said Lloyd. “I’m hungry more than ever now, and I feel mentally prepared and refreshed, that’s the biggest thing for me. I have to keep going.”
Lloyd opened up the New Year in San Diego on Jan. 23 against the Republic of Ireland with a hat trick in a 5-0 U.S. win.
The USA dominated from the opening whistle, and Lloyd, no stranger to quick hat tricks, scored three goals in a span of 28 minutes. It was her sixth career hat trick and her second fastest, with the first still being her epic 16-minute hat trick against Japan at the Women’s World Cup Final on July 5, 2015.
Lloyd’s first goal of the match against Ireland came early in the game and was the first of two set up by Morgan. In the sixth minute, Morgan ran deep into the attacking third down the left side and crossed the ball on the ground. An unmarked Lloyd outran the defense and finished with her right foot into the back of the net for the 1-0 USA lead.
Fifteen minutes later, Tobin Heath began the play with a deep run on the left flank and crossed the ball toward the back post. Morgan headed it on goal but Ireland’s goalkeeper Emma Byrne punched it out. Lloyd took advantage of the poor clearance and headed it home from close range despite being smashed in the jaw by a defender for her second goal of the day.
Lloyd completed her hat trick shortly after to give the USA a 3-0 advantage when she stole the ball after to a poor Ireland back pass and slotted the ball past the stranded goalkeeper. Right before halftime, Morgan was able to sneak one in to make it 4-0 at the break, and this time it was Lloyd who returned the favor, providing her with the assist.
After its single friendly against Ireland in January, the U.S. WNT headed into one of its most crucial competitions of the year, the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship which would determine this region’s two berths to Brazil.
It was clear during its opening group match against Costa Rica on Feb. 10 that the USA was determined to set the tone early when Morgan scored after 12 seconds. It was the fastest goal in U.S. WNT and Olympic Qualifying history, and Lloyd had the assist, flicking a ball with her head into Morgan’s path. She held off a defender and finished into the right side of the net. The score marked the fourth time in two games that the two players combined for a goal in 2016. The fifth time came later in the game when Morgan notched another Lloyd-assisted goal in the second half.
Aside from her two assists, Lloyd also scored a goal of her own against Costa Rica. In the ninth minute, Dunn drew a foul just inside penalty area to earn a USA penalty kick. Lloyd converted with a low, driven shot to left corner as the Costa Rica goalkeeper dove the wrong way, giving the U.S. a 2-0 lead.
Despite four goals and three assists in two games, Lloyd’s most important goal of the year may have come on Feb. 13 when the USA faced Mexico in the second group match of Olympic Qualifying. The winner of the game would be guaranteed a spot in the semifinals, and the opportunity to earn a berth to Rio.
Mexico played in a deep 5-4-1 formation the entire match, and made it hard for the U.S. to break down the organized bunker. Mexico’s tactics kept the USA off the scoreboard for much of the game, but in the 80th minute, a hand ball by Mexico’s Karla Nieto in her own penalty area gave the U.S. a penalty kick. It was Lloyd who stepped up to take the pressure shot. Lloyd’s initial low, driven shot was saved by Mexico goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago, but Lloyd followed up the ensuing rebound and tucked the ball into the center of the net for the game-winner.
The 1-0 victory gave the USA six points in Group A and secured a spot in the semifinals where it faced Group B’s second place team, Trinidad & Tobago, a few days later.
Before playing its semifinal game, the WNT wrapped up group play against Puerto Rico on Feb. 15, a game the USA won in dominant fashion.
With the score line already 1-0 in favor of the U.S. following a sixth-minute goal from Dunn, the U.S. earned a penalty kick after T&T’s Selimar Pagan took down Mallory Pugh inside the box. Lloyd once again stepped forward to take the shot and this time was able to convert with a perfect strike into the upper right corner. The goal was Lloyd’s 11th in Olympic Qualifying and her sixth of the year.
Lloyd netted her 12th Olympic Qualifying goal; just two shy of Wambach’s record of 14, and seventh of the year on Feb. 19 during the USA’s 5-0 victory against Trinidad & Tobago, a win that qualified the U.S. WNT for the Olympics.With the Americans already up 2-0, Lloyd executed one of her trademark powerful headers to up the lead to 3-0 right before the half. In the 43rd minute, Morgan Brian took a USA corner kick from the right and Lloyd met the cross in the middle of the box. The ball slipped through the arms and legs of kneeling T&T goalkeeper Kimika Forbes, who up until then had a fantastic game.
The U.S. WNT returns to action in a pair of friendly matches against Colombia on April 6 in East Hartford, Connecticut (7 p.m. ET, FS1) and again on April 10 in Chester, Pennsylvania (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), The game in Chester, which is just 30 miles from Lloyd’s hometown (Delran, N.J.), is sold out, while more than 20,000 tickets have been sold in Connecticut.
“To be able to play in Hartford and then come home to Philadelphia, and to know the Philly game sold out within a couple of weeks, it’s going to be really fun to be able to play in front of my home crowd,” said Lloyd. “What I’m looking forward to is getting two quality games under our belt. Obviously, we want to win, and it’s another opportunity to get better.”
The USA-Colombia rivalry is a relatively new one but one Lloyd knows well. The USA and Colombia have faced each other three times since 2011, all coming in world competitions, and Lloyd is the only player on the current WNT roster to have scored a goal in each of those matches.
The three previous meetings saw the USA defeat Colombia 3-0 in group play at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup (on goals from Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe and Lloyd), 3-0 in group play at the 2012 Olympics (on goals from Rapinoe, Lloyd and Wambach) and 2-0 in the Round of 16 at the 2015 Women’s World Cup (on goals from Morgan and Lloyd). The two matches scheduled on April 6 and April 10 will be the first friendly games between the two teams.
“These are going to be really important matches,” said Lloyd. “As far as the World Cup match, what’s done is done is my opinion, and now it’s time to focus on the present and the future and keep our eyes in the Olympics. I think that’s the main thing. Colombia is a great team. They played well at the World Cup and it’s going to be another good test for us.”