Lloyd showcases her skill in earning MVP nod
The tournament didn't unfold quite the way the United States expected, the star didn't turn out to be who anyone expected, but the end result ultimately wasn't all that surprising.
Behind Carli Lloyd's fourth goal in as many games, as well as a goal from veteran striker Kristine Lilly, the United States defeated Denmark 2-0 in the championship game of the Algarve Cup on Wednesday in Portugal, reclaiming a title coach Greg Ryan's team lost last year on penalty kicks against Germany.
With the win, combined with a remarkably disappointing run for Germany, which closed out its stay by losing 1-0 against Italy in the seventh-place match, the United States staked a claim to frontrunner status heading into the World Cup in September.
The United States didn't get a chance to test itself against Germany, or even fellow Group B disappointment Norway during the Algarve, but Lloyd's dazzling week turned what might have been a tournament of missed opportunities into something memorable.
"I think for her, this tournament could potentially change her career like the Olympics changed mine in '04," Abby Wambach said. "I think we've got a lot more really amazing things to see from Carli Lloyd. I just hope I can be around long enough to see them."
Prior to this event, Lloyd's only goal in 24 international appearances, including 14 starts, came from the eighth goal in a 10-0 laugher against Chinese Taipei last October, a match that devolved into little more than a shooting drill.
Over the nine months, Ryan has sounded variously enthralled by the 24-year-old midfielder's obvious creative potential and mildly frustrated at the lack of goals produced by all that potential. He preached patience as the former Rutgers star adjusted to the senior international level, but the return of Shannon Boxx and the emergence of Lori Chalupny made that a difficult trait to maintain in a crowded midfield picture.
By the time the Four Nations Cup wrapped up in January, in which Lloyd appeared in all three games but started just once, it's difficult to imagine she wasn't feeling some pressure as she sought to maintain her place in Ryan's plans.
"I don't really feel any pressure," Lloyd said after the final. "I guess I'm trying not to feel that, because it tends to hurt you playing at times. But we've got a tremendous midfield -- the seven or eight of us who play, and everybody can step in and do great things. I'm just trying to have fun. The most important thing is having fun and enjoying it. I think when I'm doing that, everything just kind of flows."
With Aly Wagner back after she and three other veterans were allowed to rest during the Four Nations, Boxx back after a year away with a knee injury and Leslie Osborne still very much in need of minutes, it wasn't clear how much time Lloyd could expect to see in Portugal.
Then she scored what proved to the game-winner against China in the opening game of group play and played all 90 minutes. That was followed by a goal in her first minute on the field as a second-half substitute against Finland, her team's only goal in 1-0 win. By the time she scored in the closing minutes of the first half against Sweden in the final game of group play, her spot on the field was no longer in much doubt.
"It really was," Ryan responded when asked if it was as much of a breakout performance as it appeared to be on the stat sheet. "She just played very well throughout the tournament, dominating the midfield in the attacking position. It's great for her."
The goal on Wednesday, a hard shot from distance, was the perfect capper to an MVP performance, a confirmation of the difference-making offensive skills she brings to the midfield.
"I think that I'm just not thinking," Lloyd said of the biggest difference from a year ago. "Everything that I executed last year is kind of becoming natural. I'm just stepping out on the field and not thinking too much."
Lloyd still needs to turn this outburst into consistent scoring opportunities over the course of the team's summer schedule, but better she have to confirm her productivity than prove it to begin with.
Ryan's search for offense out of the midfield always has been about finding a complement for the two players who are the cornerstones of this team, and even after sitting out the trip to China in January, Lilly and Abby Wambach did their part. Wambach scored twice in a must-win 3-2 victory against Sweden that sent the Americans through to the final and Lilly put the pressure squarely on Denmark in the final by scoring in the 14th minute off an assist from Wambach.
"We have the type of connecton on the field -- I don't actually even have to talk, I can just look or point to one direction and she'll know what needs to happen," Wambach said. "I feel like I just follow her and do whatever she needs to help me help her succeed."
If Wambach and Mia Hamm were briefly Jerry Rice and Joe Montana when paired together on the road to gold in the 2004 Olympics, Wambach and Lilly are akin to the ultimately more prolific if overshadowed duo of Rice and Steve Young.
Less obviously conclusive, at least from the stat sheet, was the search for a third forward to play alongside Lilly and Wambach. Natasha Kai got the start in the final, as she did in the Gold Cup final against Canada in November, but she failed to get on the scoreboard before coming off at halftime in favor of Lindsay Tarpley.
Perhaps most disappointingly, the trio of Tarpley, Kai and Heather O'Reilly failed to generate many good scoring chances, while playing together as a unit in the first half against Finland in group play.
Ryan had stressed that the Four Nations would provide those three young players with a key learning opportunity in stepping up as offensive leaders without Lilly and Wambach around, but the United States scored just three goals in three games in that event (although Kai and O'Reilly each got credit for one of those). Adding in the scoreless first half against overmatched Finland and it appears the front line is still short of balance.
"For some and not for others," Ryan said when asked if he was satisfied with the progress his young players were making. "And that's just the way it is in this game. Some people step up and take it to another level. We've seen Carli do that, and Tarpley had a very good tournament here."
With the current player pool containing few options outside of raw youth (in Danesha Adams and Lauren Cheney) and an out of favor veteran in Christie Welsh, the current situation leaves Ryan's team undeniably vulnerable should either Lilly or Wambach get hurt.
The Algarve Cup ultimately might go down as something less than the high-speed dress rehearsal for the World Cup that it could have been.
"I think it's kind of chess game at this point, going into a World Cup year," Wambach said. "Germany probably didn't want to play us, and Norway probably didn't want to play us, because the more times we get to play them, the more chances we get to scout them and the more we'll get used to their style of play.
"Whoever ends up in the World Cup finals, I just think that these teams probably won't have played each other all year."
Carli Lloyd's coming out party? Absolutely. A World Cup preview? That will have to wait.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.