Plenty of people dream about the opportunity to relive their past—a second chance to build, compete, maybe do it different this time. So why not Carli Lloyd, 2015 World Cup hero, the iconic soccer player of her generation, as accomplished as any American in the history of the sport?
Lloyd was part of a massive three-team trade in the National Women’s Soccer League earlier this month. Sam Kerr, the circuit’s reigning MVP, headed to the Chicago Red Stars. Christen Press, one of the most gifted finishers in the game, headed to the Houston Dash.
But the most interesting pairing of player and market has to be Lloyd, who made the decision to come home to New Jersey, and play on the field where she first made her name as a star at Rutgers University, at a pivotal time in the history of both the league as a whole and the Sky Blue FC team she expects to finish her career with.
“I think it's huge, not only from an NWSL standpoint, for the entire state of New Jersey,” Lloyd said in a phone interview. “This is ultimately where my life began, and I take great pride in being a Jersey girl and going through the system here. And I know that it's of huge importance to do my bit off the field, and there's no better place to be able to do that.
“I have a relationship with New Jersey soccer. I'm affiliated with my [youth] club, Medford Strikers, and my personal coach and mentor James Galanis, who's got his Universal Soccer Academy [here]. So, there are so many different ties and so many different things that I can continue to do to help.”
Help is a dual role for Sky Blue FC, which has struggled to make the playoffs on the field and also, perhaps more significantly, regularly lags other NWSL teams in attendance. This has very little to do with the passion for women’s soccer in the area, and everything to do with the barriers the club faces.
Sky Blue FC plays home games at Yurcak Field, the home of Rutgers University soccer in Piscataway, New Jersey. The field itself is fine, but the stands seat just 5,000. There’s a lone snack bar. It’s a fine collegiate field, but it is a collegiate field, and the difference in experience between a Sky Blue game and, say, a home game of the Portland Thorns at Providence Park or the Houston Dash at BBVA Compass Stadium, MLS stadiums both, is significant.
There’s the geography of it all, as well: Rutgers is just far enough north of Philly and south of New York City that neither city covers the team very much. There’s no public transportation making for an easy trek to the games. Even Jersey, and Rutgers itself, tends to empty out to the shore for the summer during the lion’s share of the Sky Blue season.
Notably, Sky Blue FC saw attendance rise 21 percent year-over-year in 2017, but the front office decided more was needed, and brought in Lloyd as a centerpiece. Incremental growth really wasn’t going to get it done. Twenty-one percent rise only lifted Sky Blue to 2,613 per match. That made them one of three teams averaging fewer than 3,000 per in the league.
Bringing in Lloyd is Sky Blue’s way of trying to keep up. The club could never reach the same people, even with an MVP talent like Sam Kerr, that they can with a transcendent local product and World Cup hero who is capable of sending fans home with memories of greatness every time she steps on the field.
It means so much, in fact, that Lloyd is willing to do something inconceivable for someone with a resume like hers: return to the college field, the locker room, of her youth. Imagine Kobe Bryant ending his career after the Lakers by playing home games at Lower Merion High School.
“At the end of the day, what helps these owners out is getting butts in the seats,” Lloyd said. “We have to continue to try to get a way to get people in the stands.”
And there’s something bigger than soccer here. Lloyd is 35 now, newly married. She spoke about her husband, Brian, who she says has waited while she pursued what it meant to be Carli Lloyd, flying all over the world for club and country, a commercial here, a stint at Man City there.
“My husband has been super, super supportive throughout the years,” Lloyd said. “Has not complained one single time. So, I just felt in my heart that, after a year of being married, having the opportunity to potentially come home, it was just fitting, you know?"
The joy in her voice over something so simple—living in her own house—was undisguised, perhaps amplified because she was talking to me from an airport, on her way to Houston for a Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer race.
“I'm still going to be as dedicated as I've ever been," she said. "I'm still going to be doing all that I have to do. But there's something to be said to not have to go scramble in another city, and find an apartment, and set up your cable, and pack a bag. It's just going to be great to be able to leave my home every single day, to come home to my home, and just be there with my husband. Life's short, you know? Life is speeding by us quicker and quicker every year, and I want to enjoy the time at home, and enjoy it with my husband, and my friends, and family.”
Lloyd pointed out that numerous friends and family have already inquired about Sky Blue FC season tickets. There’s one more World Cup to train for in 2019, one more Olympics in 2020. And Lloyd’s going to do it from the comfort of the place she knows better than anywhere else, and maybe build a permanent, lasting professional monument in the process.
It may seem unlikely. Then again, Lloyd seems to be at her happiest when you are betting against her.
“At this stage in my career, it's the age doubt,” Lloyd said. “It's the same thing Tom Brady's going through, but he continues to shut those naysayers down, and it's the same thing with me. You know, I've never felt more fit, more strong, more powerful, more explosive, and more hungry than ever in my entire career. So the best is yet to come, and I know what I need to do to get to that point, and I know that there's bigger and better things awaiting me.”