USWNT star Carli Lloyd did it her own way, retiring with complicated and dominant legacy

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Reflecting on Carli Lloyd's 16 years with the USWNT (0:58)

Kasey Keller reacts to USWNT and NJ/NY Gotham FC star Carli Lloyd's decision to retire at the end of 2021. (0:58)

Anyone who's been to a U.S. national team game before has probably seen it: The team has dispersed and the field is empty, except for one player. Carli Lloyd, by her lonesome, is still out there, doing push-ups or running sprints. But pretty soon, that ritual will be gone and the field will stay empty. Carli Lloyd, at age 39, is retiring and will appear in her final U.S. national team matches this fall.

- USWNT legend Lloyd announces retirement

Lloyd walks away as undoubtedly one of the most important players in the history of American soccer. With 312 appearances -- second only to Kristine Lilly -- and 128 goals, the fourth-most in U.S. national team history, chances are that if the U.S played a game in the last decade-and-a-half, Lloyd was a key part of it, leaving behind a legacy that is more complex than it seems at first glance.

It's almost surprising to see Lloyd call it quits -- it's not something she's ever done, so much so that such tenacity has become her personal brand. She loves sharing inspirational quotes about hard work on her social media accounts, and she has seemed to relish in defying people's expectations just so she could say "I told you so." There is perhaps no better example of it than the 2015 World Cup, the tournament that made her a household name and earned her the title as FIFA's Player of the Year.

The U.S. started the tournament poorly, and Lloyd especially struggled with the two-way midfield role she had been given. She openly lamented feeling restricted by the tactics of coach Jill Ellis and being unable to, as she put it, express herself.

After Ellis gave in and handed Lloyd the keys to the attack, Lloyd scored the goal against Japan that has become the piece de resistance of her career: a shot from half-field to seal a hat-trick (scored in the opening 16 minutes) in a World Cup final. In the post-game press conference of the U.S. team's 5-2 win, she told reporters she expected it. During a "burning" training session, she said, she envisioned scoring four goals in a World Cup final, one greater than her real-life tally.

Lloyd will be remembered as a winner, pure and simple. As record books become the primary point of reference, all that will be left is her sensational career, which saw her win two World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals. Look a bit closer, though, and Lloyd's legacy is that of a complicated and sometimes contradictory hero. A 2011 headline from her hometown newspaper -- "Lloyd an exciting, if inconsistent, U.S. star" -- could have been written at almost any point in her career.

For all her magic in major tournaments, pundits often derided her non-peak performances, where she was labeled "a turnover machine" and "below average." Fans wondered, based on her non-tournament appearances, why she was even in the U.S. team at all. She didn't look like the same player in friendlies, and she never led any of her club teams to tangible success -- her 2013 season with the Western New York Flash the lone exception.

Coach Pia Sundhage famously benched Lloyd because of her propensity to lose possession, telling reporters before the 2012 Olympics: "It's too big of a difference between when she's really good and when she's bad." When starting midfielder Shannon Boxx was injured in the opening game of the 2012 Olympics, Sundhage's only choice was to put Lloyd in. Suddenly, after being told she wasn't good enough, Lloyd had a chance to defy expectations on the biggest stage and she did that, scoring in that first game against France and again to win the gold medal over Japan.

At the time, Lloyd was as defiant as always, telling reporters of Sundhage's lack of faith: "When someone tells me I can't do something, I'm going to always prove them wrong. That's what champions do."

Lloyd has earned a reputation as a big-game player, someone who will win trophies for the U.S. on her own. She did it in 2008, when she scored the game-winner in the Olympic gold medal match against Brazil. She also did it in the gold medal match of the 2012 Olympics against Japan, darting in front of Abby Wambach's foot at one point to score, and then finding the game-winner with a rocket strike. But she also choked in the shootout of the 2011 World Cup final, skying her shot over the bar and allowing Japan to win; it's a moment often forgotten when discussing her clutch credentials.

She has claimed the critics fuel her, but the criticism clearly never sat well with her, prompting her to see criticism where there was none. In a press conference earlier this year, she called out the journalist from her local newspaper who has covered her longest, labeling him "the hometown dude that can never support me" because he dared to see it as an open question as to whether Vlatko Andonovski would bring Lloyd to the Tokyo Olympics. When other journalists wrote something she didn't like, they found themselves blocked by her on Twitter even if they'd never tagged her.

She named her memoir "When Nobody Was Watching," yet she has always made sure everyone was watching, sharing curated clips of her workouts on social media. After the U.S. lost to Canada in the Olympic semifinal earlier this month, she ran sprints after the game to make sure she was conditioned for the bronze medal game. But just in case anyone missed it, she took a photo from a journalist in Japan and shared it on her own Twitter account.

Such contradictions and inconsistencies in how Lloyd wants to be remembered vs. who Lloyd was as a player may have been necessary for her to reach the heights of her greatness, though.

Soccer has been a relentless act of self-improvement for Lloyd, a pursuit that requires constant effort and evolution. If success always came easy to Lloyd, how would she ever find that next level? It's the failures and setbacks that have made Lloyd better the next time around. Sometimes, she seemingly needed to remind herself of her own greatness, too, just so she knew it was ready to be deployed. Indeed, Lloyd has not been the same player over the course of her career, and not just because of the ups and downs of her performances. She has had to adapt and find new ways to elevate her game -- an approach that is responsible for Lloyd's rare and remarkable longevity.

In her late 30s, Lloyd transformed into a striker, which she said forced her to improve her off-the-ball movement and finishing. Earlier in her career, she played pretty much every role in the central midfield, where she was tasked with different duties from defending and controlling possession to playmaking. It wasn't always a perfect match, but she almost always found a way to make it work.

Lloyd's ability to redefine herself as a player is undeniable, which may be why some fans have been left wanting more from her off the field. As other U.S. national team players have grown into their own voices, Lloyd has refused to engage in any of the causes some of her teammates have taken up. During the Olympics when most teams (not just the U.S.) took a knee before games (not during the national anthems) in an anti-racism gesture, Lloyd stood. It seemed that Lloyd felt anything not related to winning was merely a distraction, but some fans have labeled her selfish or an unfeeling robot.

Such stubbornness is all part of the Carli Lloyd mystique, though. While she may chalk up her success to hard work and determination, her most powerful tools have always been a large chip on her shoulder and a single-minded defiance. Her drive to win was so strong that ultimately she broke ties with her immediate family over it, not patching that rift until before the Tokyo Olympics.

Back in 2013, Lloyd told me she wanted to be named FIFA's Player of the Year -- at the time, a seemingly ludicrous notion that she knew would earn her ridicule. "The end goal is I want to become FIFA Women's Player of the Year," she said back in April 2013. "Some may laugh and think, 'Wow, she's crazy,' but there's no sense in dreaming to get to the top if you don't think you can get there. There's no point in putting a limit on yourself."

Indeed, Lloyd has believed she could achieve the impossible, and she has. At 39 years old, she became the oldest goalscorer in Olympic history and netted the game-winner in the bronze medal match against Australia, sealing a remarkable career since 2005 in which, as long as a trophy was on the line, she was never merely a participant for the U.S. national team, but a key figure.

Before that bronze medal match, Lloyd admitted the bus ride to the stadium felt different. Knowing it was the last game of the last major tournament of her career, she reflected on everything she had done to reach that moment. She was proud, she said, of the player she became.

"Never wavering, just being me," she said. "Unapologetically me. It's been hard at times, but I've trusted the process."