Lloyd continues her game-changing ways in USA Olympic opener

The Americans are out to make history and become the first team to win a Women’s World Cup and an Olympics in back-to-back years — and they certainly looked up to the task in their opening match against New Zealand on Wednesday, cruising to a relatively cushy win.

This is a very different team attempting to finish the job, though. Of the group that won the World Cup last summer, seven players were no longer available for the Olympics due to retirement, pregnancy or injury. But one player who figures to play a prominent role is yet again Carli Lloyd, whose Olympics four years ago turned her into the clutch player she is today.

In the Olympics opener for the U.S. on Wednesday, Lloyd started off scoring in the 10th minute with a very well-taken header. Though the final score ended up 2-0, there’s no question Lloyd’s goal played the biggest part in the USA’s victory on Wednesday. The USWNT, like pretty much all teams, plays significantly better when they have a lead. When they score early, they are almost impossible to beat for most opponents.

Once Lloyd put the U.S. ahead, New Zealand were left chasing the game. This new American squad is not so much a rebuild as a reload, and they were able to quickly knock the ball around and maintain possession to thwart New Zealand’s efforts to disrupt them. Lloyd in the center of the midfield played a key role in that, too.

Lloyd has a reputation for being a big-game player and in Rio she is back where that all started for her. It was four years ago at the Olympics in London that her career took a major turn after she’d been struggling. Just 17 minutes into the USA’s opening match in 2012, midfielder Shannon Boxx was injured and Lloyd was thrown into the mix. She would score in that match and again in that tournament, scoring the game-winner against Japan in the gold medal match.

Since then, Lloyd has been an undisputed starter for the Americans and a player known for changing matches all on her own. She was named the FIFA World Player of the Year, the highest individual honor available, after her stunning World Cup last summer that saw her score a hat trick in the final. She has vowed to keep going and keep building her legacy — and she clearly looks poised for it after Wednesday.

With her goal against New Zealand, Lloyd is now at double digits in goals for the third year in a row, her fourth with the U.S. team all-time (2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016). It was Lloyd’s seventh goal in an Olympics, second all-time only to Abby Wambach, who scored 10 in her career.

Of course, Lloyd cannot win a gold medal in Brazil alone. Alex Morgan slotted an excellent goal just 40 seconds into the second half, silencing critics who have constantly compared her form to her own breakout in London 2012. And a stacked roster of young talent including 18-year-old Mallory Pugh and 24-year-old Crystal Dunn looked strong in their Olympic debuts on Wednesday and poised for their own big moments.

But then again, if there’s one player that can carry the U.S. if they falter, there are worse bets out there than Lloyd. After the USA’s first win on the road to gold, Lloyd looks as ready to play that role as ever.