Mental toughness key to Carli Lloyd's success

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Carli Lloyd #10 of the United States celebrates after assisting on the goal by Kelley O'Hara #5 in the second half against Germany in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-Final Match at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Montreal, Canada. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

For years, intense meditation has been part of Carli Lloyd's soccer game, as important as all of her emphasis on fitness. Getting alone in a room, finding the moment, the big moment in a game, conjuring up scenarios that include the ball on her foot.

On Tuesday night when she was about to take a penalty kick in the 69th minute, a Women's World Cup semifinal hinging on the moment, Lloyd had been there before.

"I basically zoned out the entire world except for the net, the ball and myself," Lloyd said Wednesday afternoon over the phone.

After her perfect kick against Germany, the 32-year-old from Delran also set up a second American goal in the 84th minute with a nifty run and pass. Nothing new about that. In the 2008 Olympics, Lloyd kicked the gold medal game-winner. In the 2012 Olympics, she had both goals in the gold medal match after starting those Games on the bench. This time, her role seemed miscast early in the tournament. Now, she has taken over, with goals in three straight games.

"I think she envisions herself as being the margin of victory in big games," said Tony DiCicco, who coached the United States to the 1999 World Cup title and is a Fox Sports commentator at this tournament. "It's not a given, as we saw yesterday - the cameras caught her face and how intense she was. She had blocked everything else out. The bigger the game, the more she wants to perform."

Yes, she sees it coming.

"It sounds pretty funny, but over the years and definitely over the last four years, I've taken that visualization part to another level," Lloyd said Wednesday as the U.S. team traveled from Montreal to Vancouver, the site of the World Cup final on Sunday night. "I've basically visualized so many different things on the field, making these big plays, scoring goals."

There's another important part of a game, a core belief that Lloyd talked about in 2008. "I really hate drama," she said as she prepared for her first Olympics. "It's draining; it's mentally draining. It's a waste of time."

Still true?

"Yeah, I think that no-drama part can often be perceived as me being arrogant or not being part of the team," Lloyd said Wednesday. "It's the total opposite. I come here, I'm in the office, I'm working, I spend time with all my teammates. I come back to my room, get focused on the next task, but my mind-set throughout my career has been to focus on what I can control."

It was no coincidence that the most-quoted remark from the U.S. camp after the 2-0 win against Germany came from Lloyd: "We didn't just come here to make the final, we came here to win it. No one is going to remember a second-place team."

James Galanis, Lloyd's longtime personal coach, returned a call from Athens, Greece, where he is vacationing. He said he talked to Lloyd 15 minutes after the semifinal.

"The first thing she said was, 'I got this,' " Galanis said. She was referring to Sunday's final. Galanis said he talked to her about putting the semifinal heroics in the past.

"Don't worry, I already have," Lloyd told him.

Out of her 'cage'

It seems that everyone analyzing the U.S. team felt that Lloyd was miscast early in this tournament with too many deep defensive responsibilities, which don't play to her strengths. When teammates Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday had to sit out a second-round game, changes had to be made, and suddenly Lloyd was in her familiar attacking midfield role.

"She's shown that she was kind of like in a cage," 1999 World Cup goalkeeper Briana Scurry said in a telephone interview. "Now as soon as she was let out, you had a completely different Carli Lloyd."

Scurry is most familiar with penalty kicks from the other side of the equation.

"I saw a very familiar look in her eyes," Scurry said of Lloyd's kick on Tuesday. "I actually tweeted, Lloyd's not going to miss this. I just knew. I was on the team when she first came in. She's as big a big-game player as I've seen. A lot of great players wither on the vine, become wallflowers, when the pressure is the biggest."

Galanis, a former professional soccer player in his native Australia who trains players in Mount Laurel, said he and Lloyd had talked during this tournament about the need to not create drama about her role, to "empty the tank no matter where the coach asks you to play," and stay positive through it all.

"Here's a girl who . . . doesn't rip anybody to shreds, blame refs, she doesn't deal with any of that," Galanis said. "She goes straight into a room, shuts the door, puts her headset on - she doesn't want anything to do with what she can't control. In the beginning, people thought she was antisocial, had a chip on her shoulder. She's not. She's just working. She's kind of set the bar now - this is what it takes."

Lloyd and Solo

The context of the "I really hate drama" quote is noteworthy. It had do with goalkeeper Hope Solo, many dramas ago. Lloyd talked of why she supported Solo in the midst of a controversy that could have turned women's soccer history in a different direction. During the 2007 World Cup, Solo had been benched, offered a lot of sour grapes, and then was ostracized by her own team, to the point where she was off the bench for the final game and was told to fly home on her own.

Yet Lloyd, who had come up through the youth system with Solo, kept sitting with her on the bus, kept eating meals with her after Solo returned to the squad.

The former Delran High and Rutgers star plays professional soccer for the Houston Dash, but home is still South Jersey, where Lloyd has led camps and clinics and her family still lives. Her fiance was on the boys' soccer team at Delran High at the same time she played for Delran's girls' team.

Looking inward, Lloyd said she is "sometimes my own worst critic. I hold myself accountable for how I play." She kicked a penalty over the crossbar in the 2011 World Cup and had to learn how to let that go. She doesn't talk to Galanis about tactical play, she said. That's for the U.S. coaching staff. With her personal coach, they talk more about whether "I was emptying the tank," Lloyd said.

"We don't want her to be playing great in meaningless games," Galanis said. "Once she had a taste of it, how your body won't give up - she did it in 2008 and it became an addiction. She waits purposefully for the last 20 minutes and she puts it into a fifth gear."

Maybe he's biased, but Galanis has more and more facts on his side, all those big goals, when he calls Lloyd "obviously the most mentally tough women's soccer player in the world."

She also has studied greats such as Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Wayne Gretzky, how they always wanted the big moment. And also how even in those big moments, Lloyd said, they knew how "to go out and play like an underdog."



mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus