Here’s why Carli Lloyd’s friends and family defy her orders — for the best

PARIS – It was pushing towards 80 degrees as the Canadian city of Vancouver hit mid-summer four years ago, and Karen Sweet couldn’t help but laugh as she looked as herself in the mirror.

Sweet, a fifth-grade teacher from Mount Laurel, N.J., was about to step out into the midday sun clad in a hoodie, a hat and a pair of oversized sunglasses.

The reason for all this? She’s Carli Lloyd’s best friend. And when you’re Carli Lloyd’s best friend, and Carli Lloyd happens to be one of the best women’s soccer players in history, you’re sometimes faced with a tough choice.

Lloyd, by the time 2015 rolled around, had been to two World Cups and two Olympics. In 2007, family came. In 2011, relatives, friends and her now-husband, golf professional Brian Hollins, made the journey. The United States did not win either time.

In 2008 and 2012, she went alone, and returned with a gold medal on both occasions.

“It was an absolute torturous decision,” Sweet, 35, told me. “For World Cups or Olympics, Carli is all business and hyper-focused. She doesn’t want any distractions. We spent hours agonizing about whether we should or shouldn’t go.”

Sweet and Lloyd have been tight since their years at Delran High School in New Jersey. They both attended Rutgers, and to this day rely on each other for advice, love and support. So Sweet decided to go to the final, along with Lloyd’s aunt Patti Wilson and her cousins Jaime Bula and Adam Wilson.

It was last minute and frenetic, booked in the brief window between the semifinal win over Germany — where Lloyd turned the game with a cool-headed second-half penalty — and facilitated by some ticketing help from the national federation.

Flights into Vancouver were in desperately short supply and spiked to exorbitant pricing levels. Landon Donovan couldn’t get a seat on a commercial plane and took to Twitter to beg a ride. He eventually got there.

Lloyd’s husband Brian went back and forwards on the decision, ultimately deciding to stick at home.

“To hear the story (later) of how it all went down was pretty funny,” Lloyd said in an exclusive interview last week. “To hear that (Brian) didn’t want to come because he thought that if we lost, we wouldn’t get married. He was really nervous. He was going to go in Karen’s place. But he felt that if we (lost) it wasn’t going to be pretty.”

Hollins told Laken Litman, then of USA TODAY, that he never took Lloyd’s commitment to her craft as a personal affront. “I totally get it,” he said. “I get being in that professional atmosphere. It’s the little things that make the difference. If that’s what it’s going to take for her to win the World Cup, then I’m all for it.”

Lloyd’s decision to keep her family away should not be misinterpreted. It is in some ways an entirely selfless act, ensuring that any blame or recrimination in the event of failure is hers and hers alone.

Those around her understand. Generally, they watch at home, cheer with all their might and wait, ready to give hugs of celebration or condolence when she returns.

However, there was something special about that 2015 tournament. Not only was it captivating the nation, the close proximity of Canada helping further lift interest, but Lloyd was coming into the form of her life – an unstoppable force driving a vibrant American attack.

“It was a risk, we took it and I am so glad we did — I couldn’t miss it,” Sweet said.

But she had to miss Carli. Part of the plan was that if the U.S. lost to Japan in the title game, the group of travelers would return home and never mention that they had been to Canada. Avoiding someone in a city of 700,000 people wouldn’t normally prove too difficult, though there was a catch.

Hotel rooms were scarce, especially at short notice. To Sweet’s horror, when they arrived in Vancouver, they realized their accommodation was just steps away from the official team hotel. And while Lloyd maintains total focus before big games, part of her ritual is to hit the streets, either for a walk or a warm-up jog to loosen the muscles.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Sweet said, her voice trembling a little with the emotion of the memory. “The chance to see your best friend’s wildest dream come true. But we were panicking. When we realized how close we were to the hotel we freaked out. We didn’t just have to avoid Carli, but any U.S. national team member or their family. We couldn’t take the risk of her finding out. It was incredibly nerve-wracking.”

Hence the disguises.

Once game time approached and the team had left for the stadium, the incognito act could come to an end. The Lloyd fan group made their own way to BC Place, along with thousands of others, wearing shirts bearing her name.

You already know what happened next. Lloyd turned in the most spectacular performance there has ever been in a Women’s World Cup final. Within 16 minutes, the U.S. was 4-0 ahead and she has scored three of the goals. Japan was ultimately beaten 5-2, for the third World Cup in USWNT history, and the culmination of years of toil and sacrifice for Lloyd.

James Galanis, the training guru who worked with her for a decade and a half, explained how Lloyd was simply prepared to do more, work harder and commit deeper to her profession that anyone else.

Seeing how much underperformance ate away at her, it was he who demanded the family exclusion policy.

“Those three or four or five hours you spend with your friends and family after the game, it makes a big difference,” Galanis told me in a telephone conversation. “In 2007 she didn’t have a great World Cup, then in 2008 she went out there on her own, would walk straight into her room and focus on the next game. She ended up scoring the winner in the final of the 2008 Olympics.

“In the end I told her, this is work. People don’t take their family to work with them.”

After the final in 2015, there was the usual round of pomp and ceremony that greets the end of a World Cup. The American women were presented with the trophy, a photograph you’ve probably seen countless times. Lloyd was the unanimous choice as the player of the tournament–months later she’d be crowned FIFA player of the year.

Abby Wambach had 52 friends at the event, and she rushed to the stands to see them. Julie Johnston celebrated with her future husband, NFL tight end Zach Ertz. Lloyd, unaware of the secret trip, hustled to the locker room to get her phone and called her husband.

“Is anyone with you?” Brian asked, cryptically.

Soon after, there was. As Lloyd disembarked the bus back at the hotel, she was immediately engulfed by Sweet, Bula and the Wilsons. There were hugs, tears and another whirlwind of activity, with parties and interviews and television appearances.

Except this time Lloyd wasn’t alone, she had her supporting crew with her. Late into the Canadian night she retreated to her room with Sweet and cousin Jamie and the three lay on the bed, laughing, talking, barely able to comprehend what had happened. There is success, and then there is the kind of success so epic that no one may ever do it again.

When Sweet awoke a few hours later, Lloyd had her eyes still wide open, a huge grin on her face. She hadn’t slept a wink.

Four years on, ahead of the Americans’ monumental quarterfinal clash with host nation France, things are a little different. Lloyd is still a force, but she is 36, and head coach Jill Ellis prefers to use her as an impact player off the bench, rather than the starting centerpiece.

She is married, too, having walked down the aisle with Hollins in 2016. And while she is still the ultimate competitor, she knows that there are not many of these golden moments left in her career. Soon, it will be time for something else.

So, this time, assuming the U.S. makes it to the semifinal, the same close circle will make their way to France. Not only will Lloyd know about it, but she’ll have some tickets waiting for them to pick up. They won’t be much hanging out, or late dinners, but she’ll likely steal a glance into the stands to try to pick them out pre-game.

Galanis, who has seen his star pupil in live action just a handful of times despite the thousands of hours of collective work, will be on the ticket list as well, and will interrupt a family holiday in the Greek islands to fly in.

“I get emotional thinking about it,” he added. “I’ve seen the courage and effort and commitment she has put into this, literally giving her life to it. Not many people in sport have had a career like hers. I’ve loved being part of it.”

Lloyd isn’t in France for a vacation, but she’ll be happy to know they’re there.

As for husband Brian, he’s still thinking about it. The ultimate supporter, he’ll need to convince himself he won’t be a jinx if he comes. He knows how much his wife wants to win. But he’s also been given a green light.

“The older I’ve gotten I feel I’ve got a good balance,” Lloyd said. “If people want to fly over and surprise me…go ahead.”

No need for disguises this time.