TIME World Cup

America, Meet Soccer Star Carli Lloyd, Your Newest Sports Hero

in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-Final Match at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.
Minas Panagiotakis—Getty Images Carli Lloyd celebrates setting up Kelly O'Hara's goal in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-Final Match at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.

Her penalty, and perfect pass to second goal-scorer Kelly O'Hara, ensure a crucial U.S. victory in soccer's World Cup

Going into this year’s women’s World Cup, certain U.S. players stole the spotlight. Abby Wambach, the world’s all-time leading international goal scorer, trying to win her first World Cup in the twilight of her career. Forward Alex Morgan, heir to Mia Hamm. Goaltender Hope Solo, for all the off-field controversies.

But step aside, ladies. For this World Cup is now Carli Lloyd’s.

Lloyd, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner making her third World Cup appearance, is no stranger to soccer fans. But for the millions of more casual viewers tuning into America’s quest for its first World Cup since 1999, she’s now a water-cooler fixture. Lloyd has scored a goal in each of Team USA’s knockout-round victories on the way to the World Cup final, which will be played on July 5, when the U.S. will face the winner of Wednesday’s Japan-England semifinal.

Against Germany in Tuesday night’s semifinal, Lloyd’s second-half penalty kick gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead. Later, Lloyd stayed patient while dribbling in the goal box, waiting until Kelley O’Hara was in position to take her perfect pass and boot the insurance goal into the net. U.S. 2, Germany 0.

So America, if you’re not already invested in the World Cup, meet Carli Lloyd. A few quick essentials:

1. Lloyd has a history of shining in big moments: Sports Illustrated put her on the cover of its World Cup preview, with the tagline: “She’s Got Clutch.” No cover jinx in this World Cup — far from it. Lloyd scored the gold-medal winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. All this bodes well for Team USA’s chances on Sunday.

2. Her ex-Team USA coach, Pia Sundhage, dissed Lloyd in a New York Times profile that ran earlier in the World Cup.

“Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach, by the way,” Sundhage said offhandedly at one point, her fork dangling as she considered Lloyd, who is a top midfielder for the United States. “When she felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players. But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst.”

She took a bite of salad. “It was so delicate, so, so delicate,” she said.

But so, so good. If coaching Lloyd, 32, has been a challenge, it’s certainly been worth any headaches. Lloyd called Sundhage’s comments “confusing.” America and Sweden played to a 0-0 draw during the knockout stage of this year’s World Cup.

3. Lloyd, who grew up in southern New Jersey and attended Rutgers University, credits a lot of her success to training with a former Australian pro player named James Galanis, described by the Wall Street Journal as “paunchy and bespectacled,” and someone who “comes off like a wizard instructor from the Harry Potter films.” Lloyd was supposed to take a ski trip with some friends while she was at Rutgers; Galanis told her if she was serious about making the US team, she had to skip the vacation.

To the cheers of many Americans, Lloyd put in the work. All that’s left is a World Cup win.

TIME World Cup

In Women’s World Cup, U.S. Feels Weight of Expectations

Members of China's national team take part in a training session at Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa on June 25, 2015 on the eve of their 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinal match against the US.
Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images Members of China's national team take part in a training session at Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa on June 25, 2015 on the eve of their 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinal match against the US.

It's not enough for the Americans to just beat China in Friday's quarterfinal

They haven’t lost a single game in this World Cup. They haven’t given up a goal since the opener, stringing together a remarkable 333-minute shutout streak. On Friday night, they face China—a team that hasn’t beaten them in 24 matches, dating back to 2003—in the World Cup quarterfinals. They’re three games away from a championship.

So why all this anxiety about the U.S. women’s soccer team?

Despite the wins—and a scoreless draw with Sweden in group play—the team has drawn more critics than cheers. Eric Wynalda, the former men’s national team player and commentator for Fox, went so far as to call the team’s performance against Colombia, a 2-0 U.S. win in the round of 16, “pathetic.”

Wynalda, and other pundits, have pointed fingers at the coach, Jill Ellis, for the team’s lack of offensive dynamism. She’s employed a defensive-minded game plan—which has clearly worked. So far. If the team couldn’t rack up more goals against early-round competition, the U.S. will be in trouble against a Germany, France, or Japan. “There’s been a lack of offensive flow and rhythm,” said former U.S. star Julie Foudy, a member of the last American team to win a World Cup, in 1999. “They’re not creating a lot of chances, they’re not taking players on, it’s really been four stagnant games.”

OK, but what about all that winning? Does it count for anything? According to Foudy, an ESPN analyst, the complaining has a bright side: we gripe because we care. “It really speaks to the growth of the game here, that we’re all debating it, we’re talking about it, we’re not content with just winning anymore,” said Foudy. “Sure, you can win on good defense. And sure you can grind it out. But really, with more support, more funding, more kids playing in the United States, why are we relying on grinding it out anymore?”

For the Americans, the beautiful game needs to be more beautiful. To that end, Foudy’s hoping that Ellis will deploy three scoring forwards—perhaps a combo of Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach and Sydney LeRoux—against China, instead of the usual two. Such a formation would ease the burden on the veteran Wambach, 35, who has had to cover more ground in the two-forward set. “For her to be chasing balls down on into the corner flag is crazy to me,” Foudy said. “That’s not her game.”

Bottom line, Foudy wants Ellis to shake up the game plan now, before trying it out against Germany or France in the semis. Not that the U.S. can look past China. They’ve got strong goalkeeping, and can cause trouble off set pieces. China faced the U.S. in the epic ’99 final, but women’s soccer has declined in that country since that time: as the New York Times reports, only some 6,000 or 7,000 female players above the age of 12 are registered to play. Parents are more likely to stress school over soccer, which offers few opportunities beyond the national team. But China’s president, Xi Jinping, likes soccer, and is backing a plan to revive the game.

Heading into Friday night’s game, the U.S. is also missing midfielders Megan Rapinoe, who along with goaltender Hope Solo has probably been America’s MVP this tournament, and Lauren Holiday, who’ve been issued two yellow cards in the tournament, and thus have to sit out a game. Still, said Foudy, “the U.S. should be absolutely fine” against China.

Fine, however, is no longer fine. The Americans need to win big to temper all this stress. Until the next game at least.

TIME Basketball

Appreciation: Harvey Pollack, Hoops Stats Guru

Harvey Pollack
Matt Slocum—AP Philadelphia 76ers stats keeper Harvey Pollack waves during a celebration of his 90th birthday during an NBA basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz, March 9, 2012, in Philadelphia.

The pioneering analyst delivered new knowledge, but never forgot the fun

Sports are smarter these days, to the great benefit of all fans. We look at the games in more minute detail, and can glean strategic insights that making watching sports more engaging. Thanks to the notion that where a certain player takes his shots is just as important as how many he fires at the rim, we knew that Steph Curry was shooting 91% on left-corner three-pointers in the playoffs at one point. Let’s see if the defense can keep Curry away from his hot spot. What are the Warriors going to do to get him open there?

Across all sports, technology is unlocking secrets. Cameras tell you where every pitch landed in, or out, of the strike zone, and the angles of tennis shots. Teams own proprietary formulas to evaluate talent that are so valuable, it may seem like a good idea to hack them. In the midst of this new-agey analytics industry that has ascended over the last decade, it’s just so sweet that the man who started the stats revolution, in basketball, was a 93-year-old employee of the Philadelphia 76ers who had been working in the NBA since its inaugural season in 1946. His technological innovation on the night of March 2, 1962, when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Penn., was to write “100” on a white piece of paper and give it to Wilt, who held it up to a camera, creating one of the most iconic photographs in sports history.

Harvey Pollack, director of statistical information for the Philadelphia 76ers and the last original employee of the NBA’s first season still working in the league, died on June 23, at 93. Pollack made epic contributions to the game. He started tracking numbers that fans, players, coaches and talent evaluators now consider routine: offensive and defensive rebounds, steals, turnovers, blocked shots and minutes played, among others. He also began compiling more advanced information, like 48-minute projections, plus-minus evaluations, distances of field goals. He coined the term “triple-double.”

Today’s advanced stat gurus, who now occupy plum positions in NBA front offices, drew on Pollack’s work. “He was certainly an originator of many great ideas and concepts that, back in the day, were monumental,” said Roland Beech, vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks. “They were definitely powerful. Absolutely, all the stats you see today owe their gratitude to him.” John Hollinger, vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, tweeted:

Thanks in large part to the best-selling book Moneyball, Bill James, godfather of baseball analytics, is more widely known that Pollack ever was. (Back in 2006, James earned a spot on TIME’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world). But Pollack had a similar impact on his sport. While James’ annual Historical Baseball Abstract was the bible for the sabermetric crowd, the Harvey Pollack Statistical Yearbook was the sacred text for hoops quants. While Pollack came up with his share of player evaluation formulas, measured crunch time performance and pinpointed which five-man player combos performed the best, he never forgot the fun. “He just loved basketball,” said Beech. “He’d include things that had no real statistical value, but that added some color to the game. He always appreciated the fan.”

A glance through Pollack’s 2010-2011 statistical guide reveals his hodgepodge of interests: it includes a list of left-handed pro players over time, the most common surnames in NBA history, and a personal favorite, the players who recorded the most games that ended in a trillion between 1993-2010 (a player records a trillion when he enters a game and contributes no statistics, resulting in a string of zeroes next to his minutes played tally in the box score). Congratulations former Atlanta Hawks guard Mario West, who topped the chart with 79 trillions.

Sports numbers can be goofy, and incredibly insightful. And if you’re like most fans—not a hard-core stathead—they can, at times, be boring. But thanks to an innovator like Pollack, numbers matter. “We lost somebody central to the NBA,” said Beech. RIP.

TIME tennis

Chris Evert: Serena Williams Is the Greatest of All-Time

Williams’ French Open victory was her 20th major win, four behind the women’s all-time career record.
Clive Brunskill—Getty Images Williams’ French Open victory was her 20th major win, four behind the women’s all-time career record.

With Wimbledon approaching, Williams is chasing history

Serena Williams owns 20 Grand Slam singles titles, just four short of Margaret Court’s record 24, and two behind Steffi Graf’s 22. But one tennis legend—who has a cool 18 major titles herself—isn’t waiting for Williams to break the record to declare her the best women’s player ever. “She is the greatest of all-time,” says Chris Evert, who spoke to TIME for our profile of Serena Williams that appears in the June 29 issue, available on newsstands starting Friday.

Evert cites Williams’ record in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments—20-4—and her lack of a rival as reasons for declaring her the GOAT. The absence of a consistent challenger for Williams usually works against her in this debate. After all, Court had Billie Jean King, Evert had Martina Navratilova, Graf had Monica Seles. Any of these Hall of Famers would dominate the competition Williams is currently facing—and pile up major championships.

Five or six years ago, Evert says, she bought the argument. But not anymore. “After watching her matches and watching her closely, these players get close, they’re doing really well, and then she’ll get to another level where she slaps winners and she starts acing people,” says Evert. “It’s not one level. All of a sudden, she’s up two or three levels better than the field. It’s not about the other women. It’s about how good Serena is.”

Evert is rooting for Williams to become the first player since Graf in 1988 to win the calendar year Grand Slam—a sweep of the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, plus Wimbledon, which starts on June 29. She’s halfway there, having become the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the Australian and the French (the U.S. Open begins in late August).

“I think we want to look up to somebody larger than life, and kind of go along for the ride,” says Evert. “We like to be in awe of somebody, it’s superhuman what they do, it’s just nice to feel like you’re part of that journey with them.”

TIME Basketball

The Golden State Warriors Are a Team for the Ages

The small-ball gunslingers will never be forgotten

The Golden State Warriors, NBA champions, were so clearly the deeper, more athletic, more skilled team in these NBA finals. So much was made of LeBron James’ singular brilliance, in the face of injuries to his All-Star teammates. Yes, James was the reason Cleveland took a 2-1 series lead, the reason the Finals stretched to six games. His performance seemed to overshadow everything in this year’s Finals.

Years from now, sports fans may remember James’ big numbers. But mostly, they’ll marvel at how the Warriors won it all.

They did it with a wizard, Stephen Curry, at point guard. Curry nailed three key threes in Golden State’s 105-97 Game 6 victory in Cleveland Tuesday night, because that’s what he does. In the clincher, however, the regular-season MVP’s passing stood out. He patiently let the Cavs double-team him far from the basket – what choice did the Cavs have against a guy who can sink shots from Cincinnati? – and hit cutters down the lane. Or flipped one-handed passes down low. Or skipped the ball cross-court, or into the corner, to open three-point shooters. Curry had eight assists. Golden State finished with 13 three-pointers.

How deep is Golden State? The MVP of the series, Andre Iguodala, didn’t start a game the whole regular season, and can barely hit a foul shot (he shot 6-21 in Games 5 and 6). In Game 6 a guy named Festus Ezeli, who played three minutes, and scored no points, in Games 4 and 5, sparked the Warriors by scoring nine points in the last four minutes of the third quarter. Draymond Green finished Game 6 with a triple double: 16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists. Harrison Barnes shot 3-4 from downtown.

Once Golden’s State first year coach, Steve Kerr, decided to stick with a small lineup against Cleveland in Game 4, his Warriors didn’t lose again. Soccer is called the beautiful game. But basketball, as the Warriors played it Tuesday night, is mighty pretty too. The ball zipped around, and almost always found the open man. No plodding here. Just speed. Just fun.

In the fourth quarter, LeBron James’ legs were shot. His attempts fell consistently short. It took a few Hail Marys from J.R. Smith, a shooter who went missing for most of the series, to keep it close. But when you looked at the players on the floor, no way could the Cavs keep it any closer. For example Matthew Dellavedova, the Game 3-grit hero, looked like he didn’t belong on an NBA court.

Cleveland should feel no shame. The more deserving team won the title. The gunslinging Golden State Warriors: small, unselfish, and simply unforgettable.

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