Winning It All

It’s been so great to be home. It’s been in the 90s here in Seattle, which is unheard of, so we’ve been doing lots of swimming and having lots of barbecues. We’ve watched a bunch of movies, and have finally been able to catch up on Game of Thrones. It’s been awesome.

Most importantly, I’ve been able to recover from what was a physically and mentally very tough 56 days, and sit down, and think back about my World Cup experience. Until now, I hadn’t really been able to do that because while we were playing, I was so focused on accomplishing what we were there to do — win it all. Then we had all of the post-win celebrations, everything from the parades to winning Team of the Year at the ESPYs, and those were awesome and fun, and also exhausting.

But finally, I’ve had a chance to look back on it all. I’m excited to share my thoughts with you.

A DIFFERENT FEEL

This was my third World Cup, and one of the things I’d learned from my previous experiences was that you can never predict what’s going to happen. I don’t just mean the outcome, like who’s going to win or lose. The journey along the way is always filled with surprises, and I knew that this World Cup would be no different. There are always a bunch of things that we have to overcome.

For me, it was to remain focused for the entire tournament, and the support system I had in place helped carry me through the World Cup. That included my friends, family and my team.

The day after the World Cup started, Alex Morgan came and found me. In the past, Alex said, she might not have approached me, but she felt that our relationship had come so far because I had opened up more to her and the rest of our team over the past several months. She said, “I just want you to know that the team has your back.” Not long after, Kelley O’Hara came up to me and said something similar. Throughout, everyone showed their support in their own way.

It meant so much to me to have that, and it really sums up a lot about what made our team so special. As a group, from the players to the coaches, we had such a positive feeling the whole way through the tournament. You could feel it just walking around the team hotel. Jill Ellis, our head coach, and her coaching staff played a huge role in that. Jill wanted everybody to be in a good place, to feel good, to perform, to be happy and to play together. She helped create that. For me personally, my goalkeeper coach, Graeme Abel, was amazing as well. I was scared to see my longtime coach, Paul Rodgers, leave the team earlier in the year. But having Graeme’s new energy was exactly what I needed at the exact time I needed it.

All of us went through every single day of the World Cup knowing exactly why we were there, and believing in a common goal. Of course, everyone says that, but this wasn’t like previous tournaments. In previous tourneys, we enjoyed each game a little bit more. We felt the emotions, and had more fun. But in the end, we came up short of what we had prepared our entire lives to accomplish. In Canada, when we were back in our room after the second game, Carli Lloyd said to me, “I can’t explain it, but this time just feels different.” It was all about the end game. We weren’t there to get wrapped up in the journey. We were there to take care of business, and at the end — after we’d won — we’d enjoy it.

THE GROUP STAGE

Our World Cup began with Australia. Everybody kept talking about Sweden, Sweden, Sweden, but I remembered our last couple of friendlies against Australia, and the scores really didn’t do them justice. I think I had three one-on-one saves against Australia in one of the previous games. I knew Australia was going to be tough.

And they were. They came flying out of the gate with a lot of speed. It was our first game, so we were a little slow and tentative, which is natural and normal. So we definitely had to weather the storm, right from the opening whistle. But it was a perfect first game, everything you would want. We kept the ball out of our end for the most part. They had the one goal, but they could have had many more. We were definitely tested, and we responded.

I enter every game wanting to make an impact, and I didn’t have to wait long against Australia. I made two saves in the opening 15 minutes off some pretty tough shots. A lot of people thought that the second shot, which was a volley, was the tougher of the two. But the first shot actually went through Lauren Holiday’s legs as she tried to lunge and make the tackle, so I couldn’t even see the ball at first. At the last second, I saw it coming and barely got enough on it to make it hit the crossbar.

If we had fallen behind early on, it could have been an opening game nightmare, and also altered our path to the final. Instead, the opposite happened. After those early shots from Australia, we were like, “Okay, we weathered the storm. Now let’s pick up our play.” Everyone on defense knew I had their backs, and they got stronger and stronger — not just in that game, but over the rest of the tournament. We went on to win, 3-1.

Meghan made an incredible game-saving play against Sweden.

Next up was Sweden, and all the talk before that game was about their coach, Pia Sundhage — who also happened to be our former coach. She made a bunch of comments about number of our players, including me. It didn’t bother us. By that point, a week into the World Cup, we weren’t paying attention to anything that anyone was saying.

We didn’t play well against Sweden. You don’t really want to tie and not score any goals in your second game in the tournament. At the same time, Sweden was a great team. Truth is that they could have won if it wasn’t for Meghan Klingenberg’s amazing clearance off the line on one of their set pieces. We didn’t give up any goals, we picked up another point, and we were still in control of our group, which had been nicknamed the Group of Death. Even more importantly, we were learning from each game. We watched film afterward, we made changes on set pieces both offensively and defensively. And with every game, we got better.

The final game of the group stage was against Nigeria. My mentality is to be concerned about every team we play in the World Cup, and Nigeria had a lot of things in their game to worry about. They were really athletic, and had come a long way in terms of their tactical game, passing ability and ball movement. They showed that against Sweden, coming back from two goals down at halftime to earn a 3-3 draw.

It was hard to get into a rhythm against Nigeria. They had a lot of speed, and while we were able to keep them in front of us, it took a toll. By hanging back so much on defense, we had a tough time getting our offense going. Fortunately, Abby Wambach was able to get us a goal off a corner at the end of the first half. It was an awesome goal, and it turned out to be the only one of the game. I was glad Abby scored it. She’d never scored off a volley like that on a set piece before.

With the win, we also won our group, and the really encouraging thing was that we all knew we hadn’t played our best soccer yet.

KNOCKOUT ROUND: COLOMBIA AND CHINA

The thing that stood out to me about the game against Colombia was the intensity. It was something I noticed against Nigeria, too. It’s hard to explain, but until this World Cup, the only countries that we’ve had an intense rivalry with have been Japan, Germany, Canada and Brazil. The rivalries with Japan and Germany are beautiful to me. There’s so much respect for the talent on the other team, and how far they’ve advanced the game. The rivalries with Canada and Brazil are a little more chippy and physical. It always feels like both countries have something to prove against us.

For the most part, though, the other nations we played treated us like they were fans, and there were times when they would ask to take pictures with us.

For the first time, teams like Colombia played us like we were arch rivals, and they had something to prove.

But in this World Cup, for the first time ever, teams like Nigeria and Colombia played like they had something to prove, too. It was chippy on the field. Even when we were winning, there was trash talking. Teams had something against the United States that I’d never seen before. They wanted to beat us, and even if they couldn’t, they felt someone else would. I actually heard players say, “You’re never going to win this tournament. You’re going to get knocked out.” It was the first time I’d ever experienced that, and in a funny way, I think it was a sign of just how much women’s soccer has evolved. Teams like Colombia felt like they could truly beat any other team, which is really healthy for the sport. We went on to beat Colombia, 2-0, and moved on to face China in the quarterfinal.

It was against China that everyone got their first look at the real Carli Lloyd in the 2015 World Cup.

Like all of us — especially all the veteran players — Carli wanted nothing less than to bring home the World Cup trophy. And as the tournament started, she expected the best from herself in every way. Everything was very regimented, from her training habits to her hydration. One day, a bunch of us were watching TV and came across the Canadian team rapping and dancing. We all started laughing, and I told Carli, who was listening to music, to look. She pulled off her headphones, rolled her eyes, and put her headphones back on. She wanted no distractions.

But for those first couple of games, Carli wanted to win so badly that she wasn’t playing like herself. She was tight. Between games, she wasn’t giving herself breaks, either. She headed right to her room after we were done playing. She wouldn’t watch any of the other games. In the beginning, I let Carli be on her own, but from time to time, I started to remind her, “Make sure you’re enjoying this. You deserve to.”

It was after we played Sweden that Carli started to loosen up a little. We had an off day in Vancouver, and she told me, “I just need to get away!” “Yes!” I told her. “We’re in the middle of the World Cup, but you can still live and breathe.” I convinced her to come to Grouse Mountain with me, and she did. We went up in a gondola to the top of the mountain, out and far away from anything that had to do with soccer. Afterward, she told me she had needed that day more than anything, and I know she was right. Carli had immersed herself so much in the game that she was overthinking everything she did, just trying to be perfect. What she needed was to allow herself to be free. She needed to dance with the ball, to do her thing and have fun.

Carli and Morgan were sensational against China, and didn’t stop playing that way for the rest of the tournament.

You could feel the crowd for the China game. To that point, it was probably the best crowd we’d had. Our fans and their fans were going back and forth: “USA!” “China!” “USA!” “China!” I think that was the first time in Canada that the energy in the stadium, from the players to the fans, just felt incredible.

Carli fed off it. Before the game, I told her, “I’m not even going to tell you to get you back on defense.” She pushed up and attacked, and it changed everything. When you have a leader on your team — a central midfielder, your playmaker, playing free — it rubs off on everybody else. All of a sudden, people are running for one another and having fun. Everything starts flowing. You could just feel Carli’s energy, and everyone fed off that. It was awesome, and Carli capped things off by heading in the game-winning goal off a corner kick.

The other person from that game who stood out to me was Morgan Brian. Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were out because of yellow cards, so we needed Morgan to step up. I was so proud of her. Morgan was all over the place. She played defensively so that Carli could go forward, and she was flying around the field, making sliding tackles and taking hits. She was absolutely incredible.

GERMANY

I wish every game could be like our semifinal against Germany. Those are the games I love to play in. I live for them. You see the best of the best athletes. You see special plays and heartbreak. It’s everything any fan could want, and any player could want, too.

It was an amazing matchup. You had two great coaches on each side. Silvia Neid is an awesome figure in women’s sports, an incredible coach, a true leader who spoke out against the use of turf for the World Cup. She’s been so impactful on the game over the long history that she’s coached Germany. The German team is a truly professional team with great, special players. We have respect not only for their skills, but for their organization and tactics as well. It wouldn’t have felt the same winning the World Cup if we never got to play Germany. It was a true test for us, and it was awesome to have it.

As a team, we were very confident going into the game. I did get the sense that our defense was feeling the pressure a little bit more than we had any of the previous games. Two practices before the semifinal, our defenders were asking me a lot more questions than they had before, wanting to bounce different ideas off me. I read that to mean, “Okay, they’re thinking more about the Germany game, which means there’s probably a little bit more nerves.” Still, we had a really good energy as a group. I felt really good going into it.

The game was tied, 0-0, until Germany got a penalty kick around 10 minutes into the second half. A ball took a long bounce into the penalty area, right to Germany’s Alexandra Popp, and Julie Johnston was called for pulling her down. Stepping up to take the penalty was Celia Sasic.

One of things I promised myself before the World Cup was that I going to do everything I could to be ready. I left no page unturned. I wanted to be prepared in every way for any situation that might arise. As we headed into the knockout rounds, I put together notes on the penalty kickers for every team we faced. I watched film. I studied their approaches. I looked for any advantage I could get.

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My notes on penalty kickers in the knockout rounds. Player numbers have been blurred out. (The Olympics are coming up.)

I spent hours studying Sasic in the days before we played Germany. She’s their best penalty kicker, and one of the best in the world. It’s almost like a perfected art for her. With most players, you can pick up tendencies. There are little things that people do when they shoot to the right — their arm swing, for example — that they may do differently when they shoot to the left. Of course, you have to be able to pick up on these things before the ball is in the back of the net, and whether you can do that is a whole other story.

Graeme, our goalkeeper coach, and I watched every penalty kick of Sasic’s we could find from the last few years. Fifty-percent of the time, she went to the left, 50% she went to the right. So she wasn’t really giving up anything there. And over the past two years, she had perfected her approach for each side. Everything from her arm swing to her approach looked exactly the same no matter which way she shot the ball.

We couldn’t read her at all.

The only thing we had to work with was the rhythm she used to shoot the ball. For years, she’d done the same thing: Put the ball down, take three steps back, and go as soon as the whistle blew.

If I had to face her, I knew I would have to keep her from getting into her rhythm.

Before Sasic took her penalty kick, I walked all the way to the corner flag. Part of that was wanting to calm myself down. Part of it was making her wait for me. I also wanted her to see the entire goal without me in it, for it to look big. So she went up, put the ball down, and saw the entire goal before I was even there. Then I took my time coming back, walking out between her and the ball, and then slowly backing up into the goal. The next time she looked at the goal — with me in it — I wanted it to look smaller. During that whole time, I noticed that she wouldn’t look at me.

Then the weirdest thing happened. Sasic started high-fiving her teammates, almost like she had already scored. It was like she needed them to help pump her up. I remember thinking how odd that was, especially because I had never seen her do it before on any of the penalty kicks I watched on film. Then she shot.

I went the wrong way, but she missed the entire goal.

My husband, Jerramy, joked afterward that I used the Force. (We’re huge Star Wars fans, and given that my maiden name is Solo, maybe he’s onto something.) But I believe in will power. I found a way to make Sasic miss.

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My husband, Jerramy, said I used the Force to stop Sasic.

Julie had been distraught after the penalty was first called. And even though Sasic had missed and Julie was smiling afterward, she was still crying, beating herself up for having committed the foul. I took her aside for a moment, put my arms on her shoulders, and told her, “Julie, we’re fine. We’re in a good place.” Something I said made her laugh, and then I told her, “The game is not over yet, and we need you! I need you right now! I need you!” She nodded, wiped off her tears, and said, “I know. Okay. I’ll be there.”

And she was. Thirty minutes later, we had won, 2-0, and were headed to the final.

JAPAN

One thing that I don’t think anyone knows is that three days before we played Japan, I couldn’t walk.

Before the World Cup, around the middle of May, I had injured my left knee pretty badly. During a practice, when we were working on a specific kind of sliding save, my cleat got caught in the artificial turf we were training on. I twisted my knee, and tore the surrounding muscle, which is exactly the reason why no one — men or women — should be playing on turf. The same thing would never have happened on grass because my cleat would never have caught like that. I got treatment for it, but I had an awful swelling in my knee that never went away.

For most of the World Cup, I was able to fight through it. But the field in Montreal that we played on against Germany was the worst field in the entire tournament. Underneath the field was concrete, and over the course of the game, I could feel my leg weaken. I was limping halfway through, and by the end, my knee was shot. Each time I took a goal kick or kicked the ball with my right foot, I was planting on my left leg, and it was awful. It was completely unstable, and incredibly painful.

After the game was over, I was scared. I knew I was going to play in the final — I would have given a limb before sitting out — but I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through it. Fortunately, by the time we played Japan, I had recovered enough that I could put it out of my mind, and focus on the game.

Going into the final — and I mean no disrespect to Japan when I say this — I absolutely knew we were going to win. I don’t know if it’s because of what happened four years prior, or because we were building off the confidence of the semifinal game. Japan had been playing great. In group play, they were playing every single player, and got through their group like it was nothing. Tactically I thought they would play us really strong, and I thought it would be really tough to score on them because they would be organized. I didn’t know what was going to happen, or how it was going to happen, but I just felt really confident —100% confident — that we were going to win it.

It wasn’t about who deserved to win. Every team deserves a chance to win if they get to the final. It’s not necessarily even about who is better, because it’s not all about talent. It’s about buying into a game plan. It’s about controlling your nerves and fear. There are a lot of other things that go into it. You don’t just have to play with intensity or emotion. You don’t just have to play with passion, and skill, and determination, and everything else. You have to find a way to take it, because the other team is doing the exact same thing. That was the feeling, especially among the older players.

Carli knew that, and she went out there and took it almost single-handedly.

From the opening whistle, you could feel how loose we were. We were opening up our play. You could feel the confidence and excitement of our players, more so than in the Germany game. Germany was intense. This was more fun. We were also able to use some of our best set pieces. On our first goal, Carli started way deep, way beyond the 18, like she wasn’t going to be involved in the play. Then she sprinted toward the goal, met the ball outside of the six, and slotted it in. We had that in our back pocket all tournament long and waited to use it, and it worked perfectly. Then we scored a second goal. And a third.

Winning the World Cup had been my dream since I was young. I was just a naive kid who loved sports, but I believed I could do anything. I believed in myself. So my dream was born, and I looked to the stars. And nothing was going to discourage me from reaching that dream. Nothing.

I pursued that dream my entire life, with everything I had, until the 16th minute of the 2015 World Cup Final. When Carli scored from midfield — midfield! — and put us ahead, 4-0, I realized for the first time that my dream was going to come true. It was Carli’s third goal of the game, and after she scored, she ran the length of the field, all the way to me, where she collapsed into my arms. After so many years of sacrifice and hard work, everything we had ever hoped for as soccer players and teammates was suddenly becoming a reality.

Then the rest of the team piled on.

I hadn’t allowed myself to shed a single tear until that point, not through everything that had happened from the start of the tournament to the final. But right then, I started to tear up because I knew we were going to win.

FOR ALL OF US

The generations of players who came before us provided us with an amazing foundation, the first building blocks of a successful women’s program. They gave us an opportunity to play soccer for the USA. They also created of a culture of winning, and that’s something that we’ve never lost sight of. That’s the culture I grew up watching. That was the culture of the team when I first came on. That’s what we’ve been about ever since. It’s what makes our team great, and separates us from every other nation.

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What a dream come true looks like.

It was the responsibility of our generation to take the game to the next level, and over the years, players have gotten stronger and faster. We have better doctors, therapists and trainers. Scientific advancements allow fitness coaches to track everything from distance covered to the intensity of our runs to how much we sleep. There’s more money put into women’s soccer in the U.S. and around the world. Not only are more teams participating in the World Cup — more countries than ever before have had a real chance to win it.

Things have progressed, and we’re going to continue to push the envelope, whether it’s about evolving the game, or fighting for equality for women in our sport. And the generation after us will advance things in ways that we never thought were possible.

We’re all part of that history. It’s what we share in common as members of the U.S. Women’s National Team. And as much as it was my dream to win the World Cup as a girl, that dream belongs to all of us now — my teammates and coaches, former players and our fans. We truly are one nation, one team, and once again, we’re the World Cup Champions.

And that means we all have three stars.