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U.S. Women’s World Cup star Carli Lloyd is bundle of contradictions

Unstoppable “beast” or erratic turnover machine? Eccentric “weirdo” or boring and blithe? Last-second hero or season-ending liability?

Choker or champion?

As U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Carli Lloyd stepped onto the field for Sunday’s World Cup final in Vancouver, she was all of the above: a player who could be inspiring one moment and infuriating the next; a player who had sandwiched two outstanding Olympics titles with a 2011 World Cup final to forget. A player, in other words, of many contradictions.

Lloyd did her absolute best to simplify her confusing résumé with a clearly dominant display on Sunday, scoring three goals in 16 minutes and powering her team to its first World Cup trophy in 16 years.

As the final whistle blew and gold confetti fell on Lloyd, sportswriters and soccer fans lined up to celebrate her – and rightly so.

“Carli Lloyd has a performance for the ages,” ran the headline in her native New Jersey.

Even the White House chimed in with praise with this tweet: “What a win for Team USA! Great game @CarliLloyd.”

The accolades were well earned, but they don’t erase Lloyd’s complex and – yes – contradictory career, which has been a veritable roller coaster ride up-and-down over the past six years. In a sports world of slogans and seconds-long Sports Center clips, Lloyd shows how misleadingly simple labels – whether “beast” or “weirdo,” goat or great – can be.

She also shows how fine the line is between winning and losing. Despite its emphatic 5-2 triumph over Japan on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Team was – dare we say it? – downright boring at times during this tournament. And Lloyd was not without blame.

In many ways, the midfielder encapsulates American soccer: athletic but sometimes artless, disciplined but also prone to breakdowns, capable of greatness but often coming up short.

Perhaps it’s because sports demand simple story lines, or maybe it has more to do with the fact that women’s soccer is televised roughly every four years in this country, but Lloyd functioned like an ink blot for writers tackling this year’s World Cup, allowing them to see almost anything they wanted to in the attacking midfielder.

“The player at the heart of the U.S. offense is a stone-cold weirdo,” opined Vice. “Take a look through her Instagram or Twitter feed for a few minutes. She is a walking motivational post. She loves ice baths. Sometimes, these two interests collide.”

But as a profile in the Wall Street Journal also made clear, Lloyd’s basic approach to soccer is actually pretty banal: She just works harder than everyone else.

“Like an eighth-grader at travel-soccer practice, Lloyd sprints up the gym floor dribbling only with her right foot, first the outside, then the inside,” Matthew Futterman wrote before the tournament began. “Then she does the same with her left. On one series, she fakes a kick before each touch, making sure to raise one arm in the exact motion. On another she dips her inside shoulder each time to accent a feint.”

“It’s all about repetition,” Lloyd told the newspaper.

While some of her teammates made headlines with scantily clad photos, Lloyd was either working out or hanging out with her fiancé, golf pro Brian Hollins, whom she has dated for 15 years. If her “weirdo” public image doesn’t quite add up, neither does Lloyd’s career.

After a Hall of Fame career at Rutgers, Lloyd launched herself onto the national team in 2005. Three years later, she was the hero at the 2008 Olympics with an overtime goal against Brazil.

But then came the 2011 World Cup. Lloyd didn’t just sky her penalty during the decisive shootout loss to Japan. She was woeful before that game as well.

“The U.S. played some of its best soccer of the tournament with Lloyd on the bench late in the semifinal against France,” wrote Sporting News in an article listing Lloyd as one of the cup’s “goats.” “Perhaps she should have stayed there.”

Twelve months later, however, Lloyd was back to being the hero. After starting the tournament on the bench, Lloyd scored both goals in a narrow 2-1 final victory over Japan in the London Olympics. “When someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to always prove them wrong,” she said. “That’s what champions do.”

By this summer, Lloyd was supposed to be a sure and steady-footed veteran. When Abby Wambach dropped to the bench, Lloyd even acted as captain. But her play proved erratic once again. Lloyd failed to feed the forwards the ball, spraying errant passes across the field, and the U.S. struggled to score.

“You’ve watched her turn in terrible performances in countless friendlies, and in the group stage of the World Cup,” wrote SB Nation. “You think she should be dropped to the bench, even though you know what’s coming.”

It’s not just armchair coaches that scratch their heads wondering how Lloyd can somehow be so fearsome at times and yet awful at others. It’s real coaches, too. Lloyd’s own coaches.

“Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach,” former coach Pia Sundhage told the New York Times. “When she felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players. But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst.”

“Pia, you’ve unleashed the beast,” warned Lloyd’s teammate-turned-broadcaster Heather Mitts ahead of the U.S.’s group stage showdown with Sweden, Sundhage’s current team.

“I plan to respond on the field,” Lloyd told Sports Illustrated.

The result? An insipid, scoreless draw in which Lloyd and the rest of her team created little excitement.

But then Lloyd buried a penalty against Colombia in the round of 16 and the confidence that had flickered on and off inside her seemed to burst into flame. She climbed over an opponent to bury a game-winning header in the quarterfinal against China and then cooly slotted home another penalty kick against No. 1 Germany in the semi-final.

On Sunday evening, Lloyd seemed to finally unleash the “beast” mode that Mitts had warned about. She scored a screamer off a set piece in the third minute, added a tap-in two minutes later, and launched an audacious half-field lob over the bewildered Japanese goalie’s head in minute 16. The hat trick was the fastest in World Cup history for either sex, and the first in a women’s World Cup final.

“ ‘Big Game Carli' delivers” declared ESPN.

But there is no need to wonder, or to pretend that Lloyd has always been “Big Game Carli.” Sundhage herself explained how “challenging,” contradictory players like Lloyd are ultimately worth the headache.

“Those players who always do exactly what I say, then that’s not (always) good,” Sundhage said.

“Some players are very challenging and those players, they create gold.”