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Carli Lloyd’s final hometown game a bittersweet send-off for a legend during a trying time for the game

My daughter and the thousands of other girls in attendance experienced more than a legend playing for the last time

Carl Gulbish

It’s not every day my daughter, Haley, gets to go watch role models play soccer. And it’s even sweeter when I can take her to Subaru Park to see an icon.

I made Haley watch the 2015 Women’s World Cup final. She was six years old, just getting into soccer, the age where she could blast the light rubber ball from the supermarket toy aisle around the living room and laugh as I’d scramble to catch the falling lamp or make a fake-horrid face as it bounced off the TV. She also found joy in rooting for the opposition. Whenever Manchester United played, she’d cheer for City or Liverpool, then giggle as I threw the remote across the room when United were beaten.

If the Philadelphia Union were playing New York Red Bulls or New England Revolution, Haley would scamper in front of the TV with a doll in her arms and ask, “Who’s winning?” “D.C.,” I’d say, and she pumped a fist, grinned, watched for a few seconds, and left. It was cute.

Before the 2015 final, Haley wanted Japan to win. For minutes before kickoff, I explained national pride, how rare it is for the national team to reach a final, and why the U.S. were a great team. But she wanted Japan. So I stopped talking and let Carli’s Lloyd’s hat-trick in the first fifteen minutes change her mind.

As a parent and coach, I’ve found myself talking less and showing more. It’s why I took my family to the 2019 World Cup. Haley saw the U.S. team gut out a quarterfinal win against France at the Parc de Princes, then days later watch them do the same to England in front of a pro-American crowd in Lyon. There are moments on a soccer field that leave lasting impressions off of it, and the World Cup was learning experience on what it’s like to stand together, defy odds and achieve common goals.

Wednesday night’s game between Gotham FC and Washington Spirit had similar vibes. Nearly ten thousand fans at Subaru Park witnessed more than an attractive 0-0 draw. Carli Lloyd making her last professional appearance in the Philadelphia area grabbed the headlines. The Delran, New Jersey, native and Rutgers All-American has been one of the top international players over the past fifteen years, and every time she touched the ball she was cheered on by youth girls’ teams holding colorful Thank You signs and teens yielding phones with cameras ready to capture her brilliance. Even as she enters the final month of her pro career, Lloyd still possesses the quality that enabled her to be capped over three hundred times for the USWNT and become a cornerstone of the National Women’s Soccer League.

But my daughter and the thousands of other girls in attendance experienced more than a legend playing for the last time. At the sixth minute, the game stopped, and players from both teams joined together in the center circle to show solidarity for the recent events highlighted a story last week by The Athletic’s Meg Linehan that detailed a number of previously reported incidents of abuse toward players that had gone unchecked by executives and owners and eventually led to the firing of NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird.

What’s even more shocking is this latest story came on the heels of similar incidents that led to the removal of other figures of authority who had threatened the integrity of the women’s game. The stoppage provided another example of how American women soccer players continue to inspire through awareness and action, something that certainly captured the young minds watching. And if many households are like mine, the gesture sparked a parental conversation this morning about why the sixth-minute display was so meaningful. I can’t think of a better teachable moment for impressionable young girls.

The game itself had plenty to offer and was filled with matchups of the highest quality. Washington’s Andi Sullivan did the work of two as she tried to contain Lloyd and McCall Zerboni, who had the best chance in the game’s early stages when her twenty-first-minute shot off a dangerous Gotham corner appeared headed for the back of the net until it hit teammate Paige Monaghan and bounced away. Gotham had another great chance in the twenty-ninth minute when Lloyd nicked a clearance from Spirit keeper Aubrey Bledsoe that fell to Midge Purce, but Bledsoe recovered in time to stop Purce’s shot.

Sullivan and midfield partner Ashley Sanchez controlled possession for much of the first half and often found teammate Trinity Rodman out wide. Rodman, the second pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft, battled Gotham’s Imani Dorsey all night in the game’s most enticing physical battle. Rodman had the advantage in the first half, beating Dorsey several times down the sideline, but Dorsey won the second half and earned Player of the Match honors for shutting down the nineteen-year-old sensation.

Despite being outplayed, Gotham’s defense held firm in large part due to Dorsay, Estelle Johnson, and Gina Lewandowski, who grew up in Bethlehem, starred at Lafayette, and won multiple Bundesliga titles and a European Champions League with Bayern Munich. Last night, Lewandowski looked every bit of a poised veteran and locked down the left side of the Washington attack for much of the game, especially striker Dorian Bailey and the occasional rush of World Cup star Kelly O’Hara.

In the second half, Gotham applied more pressure and found Purce out wide in isolation in the fifty-third minute. Purce beat her defender and cut inside but sailed her shot high. Minutes later, USWNT midfield Allie Long won the ball off a counter press and played it forward to Lloyd, who attacked the space and slipped a pass to Ifeoma Onumonu, whose shot hit the outside of the post. Many fans thought the shining moment had arrived in the eighty-third minute when Lloyd received the ball at the top of the box and dribbled past her defender. But her left-footed shot missed the frame, and many shared her anguish as she picked herself up off the turf.

Following the match, Gotham’s General Manager, Yael Averbuch West, introduced Lloyd to the home crowd, and Lloyd gave an emotional speech, recognizing her family, teammates, fans, and fellow players for their endurance and support over recent weeks and throughout her career. In many ways it was difficult to hear—another U.S. Soccer legend succumbing to time— but I believe Lloyd has found peace in her heart and satisfaction with a career that’s been more than spectacular.

As Haley and I walked out of Subaru Park and into the night, the experience left me dreaming of taking her to women’s games more often. It’s been too long since the World Cup Victory Tour against Portugal at the Linc in September 2019, and it feels like an eternity since the last pro game by the Independence in 2011, who went to the WPS final before the league dissolved.

The experience left me with many questions, most of which can only be answered by people involved in soccer’s higher levels. I felt a sense of sadness for my daughter because I know what it’s like to watch heroes play then have to wait years before seeing them again. It was reminiscent of when I was the same age as Haley, watching the USMNT play Dnepr at Franklin Field, Sheffield Wednesday at the Vet, or the United German Hungarians in Oakford. It would be cruel if the young girls in attendance had to wait another ten years to see a live women’s professional game in Philadelphia. But I’m hopeful that Wednesday’s reception proved that women’s soccer deserves to be back in Philly, so our young players can become the next generation of leaders inspired by Carli Lloyd.