Carli Lloyd can exist in your life as a sports fan in three ways. In the first way, you come into a United States women's national team game blind, knowing nothing about any of the players. You don't know who's young, who's old, who's won trophies, who hasn't. You don't know that Lloyd has played 201 times for her national team, scoring 66 goals, two of them game-winners in Olympic gold medal games. To you, she is just a nondescript below-average player. You might wonder if she's a good player just having a bad day, or if the Americans have a better player sitting on the bench.
In the second way, you are not an ardent follower of the team, but you are aware of the players. Perhaps you watched some parts of the last World Cup, or at least read about it while you were stuck at work or school. You know the name Carli Lloyd, and you might know that she is the starting lineup's one true lock. If this is the way Lloyd comes to be a part of your life as a sports fan, she is absolutely infuriating. "Isn't she supposed to be good," you ask repeatedly. "She looks like she's never played soccer before. We seriously can't do better than her?"
The third way that Carli Lloyd can exist in your life is the most upsetting -- as a follower of the USWNT. You've watched her turn in terrible performances in countless friendlies, and in the group stage of the World Cup. You think she should be dropped to the bench, even though you know what's coming. Part of you, even though you're a fan of this team and want them to win, hopes that she doesn't score, just so the mystique of Carli Lloyd can go away. If she goes an entire tournament without a game-winning goal or assist, maybe then we can finally move on and replace her with someone who doesn't make a dozen turnovers per game, ones which AYSO coaches wouldn't tolerate.
Lloyd is often so poor that people who have watched nearly every single one of those 201 games she's played for the national team forget the point of her. They get angry, they scream at their television screens, they Tweet insults, they text their friends things like "why the f--- won't Jill f---ing drop Carli already?", even though they know the answer to that question. The answer isn't at the forefront of their brains when they ask, but if they took a step back, calmed down and thought really hard, they'd find it.
Carli Lloyd is a big-time player who scores big-time goals in big-time games.
Central midfielders are responsible for winning the ball, keeping it, advancing attacks and mitigating risks. The best players are good at all of these things, and almost all top teams have a player who fits that bill. Morgan Brian, just 22, is the first true modern midfielder to break through to the USWNT setup. Germany has Dzsenifer Marozsán, France has Amandine Henry, Brazil has Andressa and Japan has Mizuho Sakaguchi. They're all balanced players who excel at keeping their respective teams together; both attack and defense would be a mess without them on the field.
And then there are players like Lloyd, a relic of a time gone by. Her turnovers weren't punished as harshly when women's soccer was a game that was mostly about individual athleticism, and it's not like there were considerably less turnover-prone players behind her. But as the years have gone by and the game has shifted into something different, one now defined by midfield positioning and possession, Lloyd's deficiencies have gradually become more obvious. Now that every top team has technically skilled, tactically drilled, do-everything midfielders -- including the United States -- Lloyd sticks out like a sore thumb. "Oh god," you realize, "that's how everyone used to play soccer. How did we watch that? We've come so far."
But she's still out there, amongst players who actually know how to play soccer.
I don't want to insult Lloyd, who has brought me so much joy as a sports fan, but there isn't any better way to put it. She doesn't look like she knows how to play soccer. It's not clear if it comes from a lack of a understanding or a lack of ability, but the difference between Lloyd and Brian -- again, a 22-year-old with no major tournament experience -- is mind-melting.
"Why" is the word most commonly uttered when watching Lloyd play. Why don't you understand that you can't vacate that space and leave it totally unoccupied? Why did you take that shot from 30 yards? Why do you think it's okay to try a risky pass into a sea of defenders when you have no defensive cover? Why is it so difficult for you to turn away from a defender and play a simple pass to your teammate? Why don't you get that avoiding turnovers when you're in dangerous positions is important?
We watch her run forward with the ball before playing a low-percentage pass that allows an opponent to counter-attack directly into the space she vacated, putting her central defenders and goalkeeper under a type of pressure they shouldn't have to face. We watch her blaze a shot over the crossbar when she had three good passing options. She does these things repeatedly, every single game. Watching her is agonizing.
And then she does this.
Lloyd has four game-winning goals in the Olympics, including two in finals matches, and two game-winning goals already during this World Cup. She scored twice in the World Cup qualification play-in game and has scored in three Algarve Cup finals. For all of the time that she is not scoring or assisting goals, she is actively hurting her team. But she scores or assists big goals in almost every big game she plays.
Her setup of Kelley O'Hara's clincher against Germany was baffling. How does a player who turns the ball over constantly have the skills to do make that kind of play? If she can do that, surely she can avoid giving the ball away cheaply. But Lloyd doesn't. Instead she spends 89 minutes being a black hole in attack before becoming her team's hero.
There is no cross-sport comparison for Lloyd. She's one of the strangest professional athletes the world has ever produced. She is not -- despite the easy comparison -- Robert Horry, the NBA role player who won seven championships and made several game-clinching shots in the playoffs despite never being a star. Horry was everything that Lloyd is not -- a solid, if unspectacular player who didn't screw up. He would have had a job as an NBA player even if he wasn't Big Shot Rob because he was competent at a variety of basketball skills. He didn't spend 47 minutes making his team worse before sending them off the floor with a win.
Lloyd has turned in 89 abysmal minutes plus a spectacular goal or assist enough times that it cannot be luck. Five different national team managers have kept her in the lineup not in hope that she'll produce in big moments, but knowing that she will. She always does.
Is she worth all the headaches she causes? For the United States, the answer is yes. When you have the best central defense pairing and the best goalkeeper in the world, you can stomach the cost of playing Lloyd. You can groan or cringe every time she mindlessly runs into a defender and gifts the opposition a scoring opportunity knowing that it's probably going to work out just fine. You will not concede a goal, and she will be involved in the game-winner. A lineup without Lloyd would keep everyone sane, but also increase the chances of a game ending 0-0.
She will start against Japan on Sunday, and if you are a fan of the United States, she will piss you off. She will look utterly uncoordinated and touch the ball directly to Japan players at least a half-dozen times in the first half. You will wonder what the hell you're watching, how this is a world class professional footballer, and if these mistakes will cost the Americans the World Cup. In roughly the 65th minute*, she'll score a screamer from 25 yards, and the USWNT will win the World Cup because of it.
All hail Carli Lloyd, the weirdest top-level footballer that ever lived.