Carli Lloyd’s Rise to Rio

Carli Lloyd is the most dominant women’s soccer player in the world — and it was South Jersey that made her so. Up next, the Rio Olympics, and a shot at history

Photograph by Steve Boyle

Photograph by Steve Boyle

It’s the first heat wave of the year, and soccer supernova Carli Lloyd is on fire for the wrong reason: Her air conditioner broke last night. “Figures, right?” she says. “It wasn’t bad sleeping, but I really hope we get it fixed.” Her cousin is stopping by her house in Mount Laurel for a visit, and Lloyd had to break the news that they’re in store for a rather steamy hangout. It’s not quite noon on this Friday in June, and she’s here at Freedom Park in Medford with another, slightly greater concern — she’s about to test her right knee for the first time since falling to the turf with a grade one MCL sprain two months ago. None of the moms and dads and kids circling the playground nearby notice that the nation’s Olympic gold-medal hopes could crumble if Lloyd cuts left or right and something goes awry. In fact, no one notices Lloyd at all, even though she’s not just the top women’s soccer player in the country — last year, the Delran native (along with Argentine legend Lionel Messi) was crowned best in the world.

Lloyd begins with some straight-ahead sprints across a beach volleyball court, and soon she’s soaked in sweat and straining for oxygen. Soccer players train for stamina, to keep them gliding back and forth across the pitch for 90-plus minutes. Dashing in the heat like Usain Bolt, after weeks of nothing but light jogging, is taking a toll.

“Oh, man,” she says between breaths. “I’m not used to this.”

Lloyd’s longtime trainer, James Galanis, watches and offers steady encouragement. “Nearly done,” he says, hair slicked back above his shades. As for the climbing temperature: “One of those things you can’t control. So you can’t worry about it.”

To say Lloyd is riding a hot streak into the Rio games this month is like saying Joel Embiid likes a Shirley Temple every now and then. Her superhuman performance in last summer’s World Cup resulted in six goals, with a hat trick to beat Japan in the finals. To put that in perspective, it’s uncommon for an entire team to score three goals in a soccer game. Lloyd accomplished that herself, including a jaw-dropping rainbow shot from midfield, when the stakes were highest. Parades, galas and the talk-show circuit followed, as did the title of number one on the planet at what she does. Now it’s time, beginning in Brazil, to prove she’s worthy of the accolades.

Lloyd is also driven by something bigger, something that began in South Jersey, where she still lives and still trains with Galanis. She’s a success story that could only happen here — the product of a rabid soccer culture and a unique bond with her trainer/coach. Galanis, a Melbourne native who still speaks with a heavy accent and punctuates sentences with “mate,” gambled on a young college player with talent to burn but a toughness deficit. Today, Lloyd stands with titans like Carl Lewis and Franco Harris as one of the best athletes ever to hail from South Jersey. And if Galanis didn’t happen to vacation in Greece when his star pupil was 10 years old, no one would know her name.

BEFORE THE SAND SPRINTS, I sit down with Lloyd inside the Blue Barn, a rec center in Marlton just minutes from her house that’s become her semi-official training facility. The Nike-sponsored athlete’s high-tech workout equipment is nothing more than a ball and a padded wall. “When people come here, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a basketball court,’” she explains. “But what they don’t realize is that the surface of the floor is hard. You have to get really good touches. You hit it up against the wall, the ball’s going to come back bouncing, so you have to strike it well. James has designed so many things.”

This is the opposite of sports science — cones, drills, a coach’s gut instincts for what his player needs to succeed. Galanis opened his Universal Soccer Academy in 2000, and he and Lloyd are here today wearing matching navy blue tees with the Universal logo; the tagline reads “Where Champions Are Born.” Lloyd’s only demand before agreeing to this interview: Galanis had to be a part of it. “It’s not what you have that makes you great, it’s the environment that you have, and it’s your job to put in the work,” she says. “James creates that environment for me.”

Perched on the bleachers for a break, hair back in a ponytail as she snacks on a protein bar, Lloyd, 34, is as approachable and easygoing as any elite athlete you’ll meet. (And listen closely when she says “pass” or “me” — the South Jersey accent is charmingly unmistakable.) She projects a strength that seems natural whether she’s drilling the ball into those mats or jogging around the building to unlock the gym door. (Busted AC, doing your own gruntwork, driving yourself to matches — hers isn’t a glamorous sort of fame.)

Of course, that power is the result of an obsessive drive that’s partly hardwired and partly engineered by Galanis. It’s also motivated by an underdog’s edge that all of her accomplishments haven’t dulled. “I’ve built this brand, I’ve stayed true to myself. I want to be a role model on and off the field. I don’t want to be known for my looks,” she says, in what could be a dig at teammates who’ve made news more for their personal missteps (Hope Solo) or modeling careers (Solo, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux) than their play. In that sense, Lloyd is a bit like Tom Brady, who has four Super Bowl rings but hasn’t forgotten about falling to round six in the NFL draft. “Nothing was ever written about me,” Lloyd says of her career prior to last year’s World Cup heroics. “So yeah, it’s fueled us. But like James would say, ‘Don’t worry about ’em. We’re gonna get to the top, and it’s gonna feel so good the way that we got there.’”

The path to the soccer summit began in working-class Delran, where Lloyd took part in every sport, from football to swimming to street hockey. “But there was just something about soccer,” she says. “I always brought a ball with me everywhere, and I didn’t care about missing out on things — birthday parties or time spent with friends. I was just all about soccer.” Competing against her brother and boys in the neighborhood shaped her style, Galanis says: “She had that street savvy about her. She’d do things with the ball and without the ball that can’t be taught in a training session. It can only be taught by playing with freedom … when no coach is watching and you just express yourself.”

Lloyd’s talent was obvious as she shot up the local ranks and joined the Medford Strikers, an all-star squad of the state’s top players. At Rutgers, she was a member of the national under-21 team and on a trajectory toward the Olympic level until her junior year in 2003, when the U.S. coach called her in for a meeting. She’d been cut. For the first time, Lloyd had been competing with Carli Lloyds from all around the country — young women with many of the same natural gifts she had, but who’d faced and overcome adversity. Lloyd got by on her athleticism, but at times she disappeared from games. She wasn’t fit enough. When challenged, she folded. “Back then, it was always ‘It’s the coach’s fault’ or ‘It’s my teammate’s fault,’” she says. “I never looked within.” Despondent, Lloyd told her family that her senior year at Rutgers would be her last in the sport.

Enter Galanis, who was training Lloyd’s younger brother when their father asked for help with Carli. A former Australian national league player, Galanis ended up in the States thanks to a vacation in 1992 to the Greek islands, where he met a woman named Colleen who hailed from, of all places, Marlton, New Jersey. A long-distance friendship eventually led Galanis to move to Exit 4 for the two loves of his life: his future wife and soccer, which had a particularly strong following in the lower half of the Garden State. Galanis saw Lloyd play for the Strikers as a teen and knew she was special. He also knew her game was incomplete.

Galanis agreed to evaluate her and gave Lloyd a blunt assessment: She had technical skills and tactical awareness but was physically soft and mentally weak, and she wasn’t coachable. “If you can turn those three into strengths,” Galanis said, “you can be the best player in the world.” Lloyd didn’t believe his vision for her future, but the critique clicked. “I had been waiting for that one person who had a philosophy, something direct and you see results,” she says. “He told me, ‘Do everything I ask, make this your number one priority, and you’re golden.’”

Lloyd saw progress immediately, and for most of the next 13 years, she has either trained for hours with Galanis or talked with him daily, holidays included. She made the national team and went on to score the game-winners for the gold-medal games in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. But “Clutch Carli” also developed a reputation for maddening inconsistency, best illustrated by the start of last year’s World Cup. Through the first three games of the tournament, Lloyd was only a factor when she made a mistake. “She was at an all-time low of confidence,” Galanis says. Lloyd called him from Vancouver in tears, bewildered. Galanis devised a new plan for the next game — play simple, take no risks, make clean passes and build from that. Then Lloyd’s coach spoke to her in a way that only a kid from South Jersey would understand. “Carli,” he said, “I want you to go to the mall.”

So Carli Lloyd went shopping in Canada to get her mind off soccer for a few brief hours. Maybe it was Proust-like memories of the food court and the Gap that sparked her turnaround; more likely, it was Galanis’s on-field strategy. Either way, Clutch Carli resurfaced, scoring goals in each of the team’s four elimination games, including that dazzling three-point performance to clinch both the championship trophy and the Golden Ball award for best player in the tournament. That four-week span transformed Lloyd from a “should she be benched” question mark to the toast of the nation: She led a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan, chatted with fellow Jersey girl Kelly Ripa, met her childhood crush Nick Lachey, kicked field goals with the Houston Texans on Hard Knocks. Back at home, she’s recognizable enough that an obsessed mom chased her up an escalator at the Cherry Hill Mall with newborn in tow. (Also: “A lot of selfies” with fans, she says.)

All the adulation looked a bit like shades of 2008, when Phillies ace Cole Hamels rode his World Series MVP performance into the celebrity circuit, then admitted he was gassed in the 2009 post-season. The difference, says Galanis, is evident in two conversations he had with Lloyd, the first in a phone call shortly after the World Cup win. After some laughs and mutual congrats, Lloyd had a question: “When are we training?” (Galanis’s answer: “Just chill out, mate. Enjoy your moment.”) The other was a message during the star-studded ESPY Awards: “I saw her on TV, and a minute later, I got a text from her: ‘I need to be at Ark Road Road,’” Galanis says — a reference to Universal Soccer Academy, where Lloyd runs more of his Flintstones-era drills. “Anyone else would be like, ‘Look where I am!’”

In a way, Lloyd is shouting “Look where I am” now — with a string of endorsements (Comcast, United Airlines, Whole Foods) and all these interviews. But she’s yelling on her trainer’s behalf as well. The 45-year-old coach has never been compensated for his time and guidance; he gambled on Lloyd’s potential, and now she’s repaying him by teaching at his academy and giving him a healthy share of her spotlight. Lloyd achieved the ultimate goal Galanis set for her earlier than he imagined. So they’ve drawn up a new one — for her to become the best female soccer player, ever. By their calculation, that means a final trio of world stages on which to build her legacy: Rio, the 2019 World Cup in France, and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “Nobody has had such a big effect on finals as Carli has,” Galanis says. “We’ve got three more to go. If she can come close to the same impact, who else has impacted the game in finals as much as Carli Lloyd? Nobody.”

THE FIRST STEP toward history begins here, testing out a tender knee on a sand volleyball court. Galanis throws down five orange cones, and Lloyd starts zigzagging, cutting left and right.

“Not feeling anything?” he asks.

“No,” she says between deep breaths. “I stretched it a little on that one.”

A few more sprints and she’s done for day. Hurdle number one toward achieving GOAT status, cleared. Lloyd brushes off concerns about being ready for Brazil, where she’ll be a Team USA co-captain for the first time. Stress about Zika? Media hype, she says. How about her destination wedding in the fall to her high-school sweetheart, Trenton Country Club golf pro Brian Hollins? Nah, her bridesmaids are helping with the planning. The only thing she’s worried about is cooling down her house for the weekend and maybe finding time to grab a slice at Pietro’s Coal Oven Pizzeria on Walnut Street. (“They used to have one over here on 70, by the old circle,” she says wistfully.)

Lloyd and Galanis part ways, but they’ll talk every day until Rio, every day during the Games and beyond. Four more years of grinding, of holding tight to that underdog mentality she forged in overlooked South Jersey, while the critics wonder aloud if she can stay at the top and her teammates pose in bikinis for Sports Illustrated or naked in ESPN’s Body Issue. Meanwhile, you’ll find her on the fields and in the streets where she grew up. And maybe at Wegmans.

Published as “The Score” in the August 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.