Carli Lloyd
Carli Lloyd reacts after scoring one of her three goals for the United States against Japan in the final of the Women's World Cup. Reuters

Carli Lloyd pictured scoring four or five goals in the final of the Women’s World Cup, but three was to prove sufficient to take the title back to the United States and earn its No. 10 the recognition her talent has long deserved.

For the United States women’s soccer team, the manner of its stunning 5-2 victory over Japan in Sunday’s final represented an incredible turnaround from the way it had trudged through the early rounds. And no player embodied that transformation more than its hat-trick hero.

Heading into the tournament in Canada, much of the focus had rested on big names like Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach and Hope Solo. Morgan, the prolific forward and crossover sensation, was struggling to recover in time from a knee injury, while there were plenty of questions over the role the 35-year-old Wambach would still have on the field. Meanwhile, Solo continued to grab headlines for all the wrong reasons for her activities away from the field.

Yet over the next four weeks it was Lloyd who was to be the defining figure in the Americans’ attempts to become the first country to win a third Women’s World Cup title, and first since 1999.

Events in Vancouver on Sunday mean it is likely already being forgotten, but the U.S. hardly entered the event in the most convincing of fashions. After the surprise dismissal of Tom Sermanni, coach Jill Ellis had little over a year to prepare the team for its chance to regain the title north of the border. And as the World Cup got underway, the team was still a work in progress.

A goalless draw against South Korea in its send-off game in New Jersey hinted at the attacking problems that were to hamper the U.S. through the early rounds. At the heart of those issues was the makeup of the midfield, and chiefly the partnership between Lloyd and Lauren Holiday. Both players were more comfortable going forward and both were being compromised as a duo. Combined with the presence of Wambach up front, which meant the rest of the team all too often falling into a one-dimensional tactic of playing long to utilize the veteran striker’s height and strength, Lloyd’s qualities were being wasted.

The U.S. topped what was a difficult group to make the Round of 16 before getting past Colombia in the first knockout round, but it was largely relying on its defense and flashes of individual skill further forward. It was until the quarterfinal against China that there were signs of progress, when Lloyd headed in the winner to back up her penalty against Colombia.

It was the match against a No. 1 ranked Germany side in the semifinals, though, that brought the defining moment for the U.S. and for Lloyd. Ellis rejigged her formation, taking out a striker and inserting Morgan Brian as a holding midfielder to give Lloyd the license to get forward. And the 32-year-old reveled in the role, again making the case that she is the most technically gifted American player of her generation.

Germany had just missed from the spot when Lloyd stepped up with the chance to give the U.S. the lead in the second half against the 2003 and 2007 champions. For a player who had missed a spot kick in the 2011 final shootout, the pressure was enormous. Yet she nervelessly converted. And shortly before the end it was Lloyd’s skill and awareness when breaking into the Germany box that set up Kelley O’Hara to ensure the U.S. would be going back to the World Cup final for a chance at revenge against Japan.

Despite Lloyd’ premonition ahead of the final, not even the biggest optimist could have realistically envisaged what was to happen in the early stages at a packed BC Place. In the first five minutes, Lloyd was perfectly placed on two set-pieces and supplied two textbook finishes to put the U.S. into a rapid 2-0 lead. And after Holiday’s fine volley came the moment that secured the 2015 Women’s World Cup and Lloyd’s place in history.

Driving toward the halfway line, Lloyd looked up saw Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori slightly off her line, and went for glory. Few players would have even had the idea of pulling off such a feat, precious few, if any, would be capable of pulling it off and finding the back of the net. Lloyd had scored both of the Americans’ goals in its victorious 2012 Olympics win over Japan, but this was the goal that secured the first hat-trick ever in a Women’s World Cup final and catapulted the New Jersey native into indelible superstardom.

“I think my career has gone up a level, that’s for sure,” she told afterward. “There’s always room for improvement, though, and I know I have to keep on working hard.”

She did it all while wearing the captain’s armband, before showing class with more than just her feet to immediately transfer the armband to Wambach when the veteran made her way onto the field as a late substitute.

She may not be President of the United States or have her face on $10 bill as some enthusiastic internet users suggested on Sunday, but she did win the Golden Ball having been recognized as the tournament’s best player. And her name will forever be synonymous with the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the climax of the United States’ quest to get back on top of the world.