Aly Wagner Praises The ‘Mentality’ That Made Carli Lloyd One Of The Greatest Ahead Of Her Final Game For The USWNT

One of the greatest American footballers to ever live will call it a career on Tuesday night. Carli Lloyd will lead the United States women’s national team onto the pitch against South Korea in Saint Paul for the final time, marking the 316th time the New Jersey native will play a game in the red, white, and blue.

Lloyd’s national team career achievements are near-peerless: Two Olympic gold medals, two World Cups, 134 goals, and a collection of trophies in her trophy case that indicate she held the title of best player in the world at one time or another. Among her many career highlights is one of the greatest individual performances, man or woman, we have ever seen in a World Cup final, as Lloyd banged in three first half goals — including a chip from midfield that was a finalist for FIFA’s Puskás Award that year — en route to a 5-2 drubbing of Japan.

Ahead of Lloyd’s final match — which will feature an isolated camera on her that’s available on the Fox Sports app and social media accounts — Uproxx Sports caught up with former U.S. international and current Fox Sports broadcaster Aly Wagner, who will be in the booth on Tuesday night’s broadcast. Wagner’s been there since the beginning of Lloyd’s career — the pair were teammates on the youth national team, while Lloyd received her first appearance with the side as a substitute in place of Wagner. Now, before Lloyd’s last appearance, we asked Wagner about the various things that made her one of the biggest names in world football and much more.

How long have you known Carli, and how often did you play together during your career?

I don’t know how long I’ve known her. I know that we played on the U-20 national team together. She was in and out of that pool, wasn’t necessarily a regular. I don’t know if she came to the Nordic Cup, which was, at the time, the biggest tournament that we had for that age group. So, I’ve known her probably, I’m going to go with over 20 years, playing with her on the youth national level, and then obviously, the senior team when when she broke in. So, a long time.

And what is it about Carli — whether it’s her game, how she’s wired, whatever it might be — that has led to her being this institution, and not just American soccer, but really worldwide soccer for so long?

The reality is her mentality is massive. And her mentality is what set her apart. I mean, you often see in all sports — men, women — that the talent is there for many people, and it’s how you apply yourself, and your commitment to your craft, and the mentality that ultimately sets people apart. And that has been, I think, Carli Lloyd’s game changer, if you will, that has put her on, as you said, that global level, and she just came through in big moments. Not a lot of players can say that, some of the best in the world can’t say that, that they don’t show up in the big moments. And Carli was one that, again, I go back to the mentality piece, she didn’t shy away from those challenges, she looked at them and said, “This is mine, and bring it on.”

And that, ultimately, will be her legacy. Look at her hat trick in the World Cup. That doesn’t happen in the final, it just doesn’t happen. She had the big goals in the Olympics for us to win, and she did it at times when she wasn’t even having the best game, and to be able to come through in a big way, that’s what sets her apart.

I know that you have 131 national team caps in your career, this is going to be 316 for Carli. What goes through your mind, as someone who had such a long and successful national team career, when you see a person appear for the team just that sheer number of times?

Well, I think there’s definitely a hint of insanity [laughs]. All those brilliant players, they’ve got that longevity in their career and the desire to do it for that long, I really do believe it takes a different person to be able to play for the national team 300 times, I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again.

But the national team is a grind. The national team, as much as people look at it from the outside and think this is just the coolest place to play, it’s got to be the best experience, got to be loads of fun, you’re on a high all the time, you’re winning, you’re a celebrity, that is so far from the reality. It is an absolute grind. And so, those players like Carli that have been able to do it over 300 times, again, goes back to the special mentality and ability to put the work in, to do it over and over again, and to find some joy in that.

So, the longevity of her career, actually, is probably … I would just say Carli Lloyd’s career absolutely surprised me. It’s a testament to again, her mentality, but it’s a really good lesson for young players, because this is a player that was in and out of the national team at the youth stages. She was left off of major rosters, she’d come into camp and wouldn’t perform as a young player. And for her to go on and have the career that she did, and to become that player that I’m describing now, because I don’t think that was who she was early on. And I think that’s a really, really interesting fact that maybe doesn’t get talked about enough, just the evolution that she herself made. And I think she gives a lot of credit, actually, to Jerry Smith, our U-21 coach at the time, who’s now the Santa Clara coach, in helping her kind of shift her mentality, shift her focus more towards driving towards the goal.

We all get to be the beneficiaries of that switch of mentality. But, again, the longevity of her career has been something to see. She’s so close to me in age and there’s no way I still wanted, I mean, I didn’t want to keep playing. It wore me down, it did not wear her down.

Yeah, and you mentioned just like, the insanity of playing that sheer number of games. Like, it’s taken to another level, I imagine, when you consider the fact that the expectation with the USWNT is you’re winning and you were keeping that perch as the best team on earth for any time you step onto the pitch, which he’s been doing for 15, 16 years now.

The national team, again, the misperception maybe that exists with this team is, for a very long time, our training sessions were harder than our games. There were a handful of games that challenged us and those were world events against the top teams in the world. But those games were few and far between. It’s a grind in national team camps, in January camp, those elements were incredibly demanding and taxing. And then you add on that you have to be the best in the world. I don’t think the best in the world tagline for pressure really affected us at the earlier stages, in the earlier stages of her career. You’d have to talk to her, but early on, that pressure, expectation was easy, I think, to almost handle, because like I said, there’s only a handful of teams that could knock us off.

But now, it’s so different. Every game is is demanding in different ways, whether it’s tactically, physically, these other changes, so much better. So, for her to transition from what we had early on to now, the pressure and how much that has evolved, especially with social media and the scrutiny that is out there, the accessibility of these players, of their performances, the stats that are public knowledge to whether or not it will support whether someone played well, it’s pretty crazy. So, all of those elements with the demands of being the number one team in the world, again speak to her strength, internal confidence, but I think it’s also, that’s the joy of being on the national team, too, is you want to be the top dog, and you want to be the team that people are gunning for. And so, I think as much as we can talk about that wearing someone down, I think that also is the motivating factor to stay in that role and to be the the fulcrum that continues to push this team into that limelight.

What is it about what she can do on the pitch that has made, just from a sheer talent perspective, such a handful for whomever is lining up against her even to this point?

I think that’s evolved over over the course of her career. Where she was special was in her finishing ability, and she wasn’t always a very great two-way player. I think that, the shift in when she decided to be a good defender as a midfielder, that pushed her to another level. And then she moved up further in the field. She already had the intelligence and understanding of the game, the tactical know how existed when she was in to that nine position. But she was always a killer around the goal. You think about Carli Lloyd’s career and you’re thinking about goals, and the fact that she was a midfielder for most of her career, I think elucidates that, and it’s not like she was always playing a 10. She was sometimes playing in that eight position and having to do the defensive work. I think what set Carli Lloyd apart, honestly, is really her finishing ability as soon as you got in around that 18.

You were a national team player when some of the best to ever wear the red, white, and blue ended their careers like — Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, etc. As someone who knows what it’s like to watch those sorts of icons from that the generation before you retire, what’s going to go through the minds of the other 10 players on the pitch as they know this is Carli’s last game?

It’s funny you asked that, because we were just having a prep call for our game on Tuesday. And I’ll tell you, it’s gonna be mixed emotions. The players that played with her that know they’re getting up there in age are going to feel like this is the beginning of the end of their era, even though they know what’s around the corner, they can sniff it. They’re absolutely going to feel a bit nostalgic and recognize that someone very close in their age, that has followed the trajectory of their career, is bowing out in a big way and being celebrated. And so, there’s going to be a bit of probably anticipation of what’s around the corner for them. So I think it’ll be a bit sad.

And, of course, it’s a celebration, but I think there’s gonna be personal emotions on that level. Some of the younger players, like you said, I’ve been there, some of the younger players are going to be sad to miss such a strong personality as a leader in her actions with this national team, because she is that last, I think, great tie to the older generations that came and played when no one was watching, when there wasn’t social media, when the games weren’t covered. And she was really one of the last ones who have experienced that, and to be able to impart what work had to happen behind the scenes and without without any expectation of glory on the flip side. I think there’s going to be an element for the younger players that are going to be a little bit nervous and hesitant to not have that pillar of foundation within the program anymore.

But I also think there’s going to be some excitement that the shadow, the legend of Carli Lloyd will no longer be looming, and they can maybe step into the light and become the next leader for this national team and become that next player where they’re no longer maybe having to vie for that position. Because as much as it’s a family, it’s also a competitive family. So, I think there’s going to be individually mixed emotions across the board given the differential in age that you have on the team.

The Olympics are now in the rear view, the big tournament Up next is the CONCACAF championship next year, World Cup in ’23. What are the biggest things you want to see the team focus on in the lead up to next summer?

What I just spoke to is selflessness and togetherness, that fight and the spirit to … almost against all odds, as much as that sounds absurd, because this team has a lot given to them. But that underdog mentality, that something to prove, that “we’re going to be special because we’re going to be unified, and we’re going to work together.” I think that emotional motivation absolutely needs to be there if they’re going to go win another world championship.

And then tactically, I think an element of bravery again, which is so crazy to say, but we looked a bit scared and the Olympics and players didn’t want to take responsibility. So, the ability to be fearless, to not feel that pressure, to take chances, take risks. And then, I think the team in the final third needs to evolve. The balance of not forcing it after they regain it in high positions, to be patient in those moments. And then also, the ability to break down teams that are going to sit low, I think this team has a lot of special talent in the center of the field, and to be able to access that resource and utilize those players more is going to be massive. The way we played in the Olympics was almost like, the left side played with the left side, the right side played with the right side, and the midfielders didn’t connect with each other essentially enough. And so, there wasn’t that utilization down at the heart of the team and the connection with that nine. So, those elements I would absolutely say have to evolve going forward.

And then my last question, how has it been over the last however many months getting back into the booth, watching a soccer game in front of you, interacting with fans in the stadium, all those sorts of things after not having the chance to do that for a year or so?

Amazing. You take for granted sometimes the little things, and just getting back in the stadium, seeing fans, actually talking to the players, and being able to see tactics, I mean, man, that’s the joy of what we do, is to celebrate these players, the beauty of their actions, and to be able to try to impart that onto the audience. When you’re in the stadium, there’s nothing like it. You get to see it, witness it, and feel it, most importantly. So, it’s been fantastic. I love it. Hopefully we stay the course and we don’t have to go back.