There are no records to break or milestones to achieve in the final game of Carli Lloyd’s career with the U.S. women’s national team. She’s long since passed the round numbers that matter, whether it’s 100 goals or 300 caps. She will fall short, though not that short, of playing the most games or scoring the most goals.
Her final match comes on Tuesday at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, a chance for those who’ve followed her USWNT career for well more than a decade to say thank you and say they, too, saw one of the greatest ever in the sport of soccer perform in person.
Exactly how great was Lloyd, though, among the legends the USWNT has fielded since emerging as a world soccer force at the 1991 Women’s World Cup?
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Alex Morgan, who has played with Lloyd since joining the national team as a promising young striker in 2010, told Sporting News that Lloyd has “just had an incredible career, so much success — especially in big tournaments, where she has been pivotal for this team. She’s just been the ultimate professional. It’s just been a really good example for young players … To have someone like that finally hang up her boots, for us, as much as we can celebrate her this week, we want to do that.”
That’s a convenient starting point in our endeavor to put Lloyd into proper historical context with the USWNT, through a ranking of the program’s 10 greatest players.
10. Alex Morgan
Morgan did not enter the USWNT in the typically grand fashion to which the program’s top players have become accustomed. A shocking failure in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying put the U.S. in position of needing to defeat Italy in a last-chance qualifier to earn a spot at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Morgan delivered in the first leg of that series, entering late as a sub and scoring in stoppage time to secure a 1-0 victory just eight months after her debut (video below).
She eventually became the team’s No. 1 forward and scored nine goals at World Cups and six at the Olympics. She ranks in the top five in all-time goals scored for the USWNT.
9. Hope Solo
It’s always a challenge to compare goalkeepers to field players, even more so for the USWNT because in so many games there is such a talent disparity that the goalkeeper can be left with little work to do. Solo almost always was ready when called upon to make a huge save because of a (rare) error in front of her. She had great understanding and awareness, and the agility to execute the spectacular save. Her legacy is complicated by personal behavior issues that led to multiple suspensions and, in 2016 following a bronze medal at the Olympics, the termination of her contract.
8. Becky Sauerbrunn
Central defense was a tricky position for the USWNT in the early part of the 2010s, a problem that contributed to the inability to finish off Japan in the 2011 World Cup final and required an overwhelming offensive performance in a 4-3 goalfest to defeat Canada in the 2012 Olympic semis.
Since Sauerbrunn was installed as a cornerstone at that position, the USWNT has allowed just 0.83 goals per game in four major tournaments — and 10 of the 20 total goals came at this past summer’s disappointing Olympics. Sauerbrunn is not big and overly physical, but she’s tough and understands how to organize defenders and keep in proper position. She is not a player whose excellence can easily be summarized by her statistics, but the back-to-back World Cup triumphs would not have occurred without her.
7. Megan Rapinoe
Rapinoe might have been the latest bloomer of all the U.S. stars, largely because of knee injuries that impacted her start with the USWNT and cost her an opportunity to be part of the 2008 Olympic team.
It was her perfect cross that set up Abby Wambach to score the last-second, game-tying goal in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals, which kept the U.S. alive for eventual advancement to the final. Rapinoe scored twice in the first game of the 2015 World Cup, getting the attack off to a sweet start.
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The 2019 World Cup, though, became her moment. The confluence of national politics and international soccer gave Rapinoe a platform to have her say on issues in her home country and to reinforce the message with the best soccer of her career. She’d lost enough of her speed that occasionally a forward ball that might have been reached was abandoned to conserve energy. But given the opportunity to take a free kick or penalty, or to execute something in the box, she rose above those limitations and scored six goals, earning the tournament’s Golden Ball award. That was followed by the FIFA Best Women’s Player award.
6. Christie Rampone Pearce
Rampone still was new to the USWNT when the squad broke into the public consciousness with its surge through the 1999 World Cup. But by 2000 she was a regular starter in the middle of defense, a dependable presence who became one of the first names written down on the lineup cards of a variety of USWNT coaches.
With her in the center of defense for seven consecutive major tournaments, the U.S. allowed less than a goal per game. Her reliability led to her being chosen team captain in 2008, and she wore the armband through five major tournaments, making only limited appearances at her last one, in 2015. She earned the most caps of any defender in women’s soccer history.
5. Kristine Lilly
Although it is Brandi Chastain we remember best from the 1999 World Cup, the true U.S. hero was Lilly, who cleared a ball off the goal line in extra time that would have won the game for China and eliminated the need for the penalty shootout that made Chastain an icon.
Lilly entered the national team program while still in high school and stayed until she was 39, setting the all-time record for national team appearances that might stand beyond reach with marks like Cy Young’s 511 victories and Wayne Gretzky’s 894 goals. In major tournaments, she scored a total of 12 goals spread over 46 appearances. She played in two World Cup finals and three Olympic gold-medal games.
4. Abby Wambach
Wambach was a bit young to help the U.S. at the 1999 World Cup, but she came along just in time to help the group that made women’s soccer popular here earn Olympic gold medals in their final tournament, at the 2004 Olympics. Wambach scored four goals at the Games in Greece, including the game-winner in extra time to defeat Brazil in the final.
That might have been her most important tally, but the most dramatic came with only seconds to play in the 2011 World Cup quarters against Brazil, when she headed home a curling cross to force a penalty shootout – again, against Brazil.
Wambach was the ideal center forward, tall and strong enough to dominate with headers and nimble enough with her feet to settle the ball quickly and fire off accurate shots. She ranks second all-time in women’s soccer goals, behind Canada’s Christine Sinclair, and Wambach might have set that target a little higher (and earned another championship) had she not broken her leg in a friendly just prior to the team’s departure to China for the 2008 Olympics.
3. Carli Lloyd
Lloyd’s career did not follow the same, reliable arc as most players on the list. They mostly were identified as young talents, brought into the program as teens or freshly out of college, became starters because of their obvious ability and commitment, and gradually were replaced by new talents on the ascent. Lloyd didn’t earn her first senior national team cap until she was 23. She didn’t start a game until a year later.
She became a regular starter in midfield in group games at the 2007 World Cup, but did not start any of the knockout games. Her real breakthrough came at the 2008 Olympics, when manager Pia Sundhage built an attack around the midfield’s ability to control the game. Lloyd was at the heart of that, and she scored the game-winning goal in extra time to beat favored Brazil and claim the gold. That was the first clear evidence of Lloyd’s ability to deliver in the biggest games: She scored the game-winner at the 2012 Olympics against Japan, dominated the same team in the 2015 World Cup final and, fittingly, closed out her career in 2021 by scoring the game-winner for the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
But even the path to those heroics was fraught: In 2012, she was benched by Sundhage entering the Games and only got her spot back because of an injury to teammate Shannon Box; Lloyd went on to score four goals. All the greatest players worked hard, but it was Lloyd who willed herself into greatness through hard work. That continued to such a degree that even as she entered her late 30s, she was able to reinvent herself as a forward and scored 28 goals (to date) in the final three years of her career.
2. Michelle Akers
Akers’ best performances are largely lost to history, transacted before the world was interested enough to provide her a proper stage or pay attention to her greatness. We now call the first world championship won by the USWNT as a “World Cup”, but when it occurred FIFA was so reticent to place that level on a tournament for women that it was termed the “FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.” It couldn’t be a World Cup, but they damn sure could get a sponsor’s name on the trophy.
Akers dominated that event, scoring 10 goals in six games — including both goals in the 2-1 victory over Norway to clinch the title. Bothered by injuries and chronic fatigue syndrome, she was moved to a defensive midfield position to diminish the physical punishment she was receiving from defenders. That reduced her goal output, but not her impact on the USWNT.
1. Mia Hamm
There really could be no other answer at the top of this remarkable list. Hamm’s appearance on the scene helped make women’s soccer the popular sport in America — and the world — that it is today.
She was just 15 when he first played with the national team, really before international women’s soccer really was a thing, and she played in the 1991 World Cup while still a student at North Carolina. She was a part of the introduction of the Women’s World Cup and women’s soccer competition at the Olympic Games.
A force as both a creator and a finisher, she holds the USWNT record for assists with 144. She scored in every major tournament in which she appeared — four World Cups, three Olympics — and went the distance in the final two such games of her career, the semifinal and then gold medal game at Athens 2004, even though both of those went into extra time. Hamm retired as the career leader and still ranks third on the all-time goals list in international women’s soccer.
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