September 1, 2012
By Michael Lewis
Sundhage meant more than just wins and titles
In a few weeks we're going to say goodbye to Pia Sundhage, who announced she will be leaving as U.S. Women's National Team coach.
Sundhage, who wants to return home to her native Sweden, is expected to coach her final game against Australia in Commerce City, Colo. on Sept. 19.
Sundhage's five-year tenure certainly was a successful one -- two Olympic gold-medal winning teams sandwiched around an appearance in the 2011 Women's World Cup final. And, if it wasn't for a defensive error or two in the back or a couple of mis-kicked penalty kicks during the shootout loss against Japan in Germany last summer, it could have been three major championships.
Regardless, Sundhage's coaching legacy quite secure, especially when you remember the conditions in which she was hired in November, 2007.
If you don't remember, let me refresh your memory.
The U.S. was fresh off a disappointing and stinging third-place finish at the 2007 Women's World Cup in China and the firing of coach Greg Ryan. Ryan was given the pink slip by U.S. Soccer not only for losing the semifinals to Brazil, 4-0, but the circumstances around it in one of the biggest coaching blunders in World Cup history -- men or women.
After Hope Solo had recorded three consecutive shutouts, Ryan decided to replace his goalkeeper with veteran Brianna Scurry (who had a WWC's crown and two Olympic gold medals to her credit). However, Scurry had not played regularly for a while and the U.S. went down to its worst result in history. After the game Solo gave the media a piece of her mind on her benching and she eventually was ostracized by the team.
The team was fractured and needed healing.
When Sundhage took over, she had to mend fences because she knew she had a special player -- the best women’s goalkeeper on this planet -- and she needed all her players if you wanted to add to some hardware to the U.S. Soccer trophy cases.
She managed to get Solo back onto the good graces of her teammates, at least on the field. Sundhage did not have years to get the team back together; she had months with the Beijing Summer Olympics in August 2008. Despite the fact star striker Abby Wambach broke her leg only weeks prior to the tournament, the U.S. managed to win the gold.
I already had written that that if there was a 21st century version of the "Importance of Positive Thinking" Sundhage would write it. I can't recall such a positive coach in my years as a writer. You could throw her a hard curveball of a question and she could turn it around into a positive.
Moreover, that philosophy permeated through the team.
If I have one gripe about Sundhage, it was that she celebrated goals without abandon, whether it was 1-0 or 8-0. There certainly is nothing wrong about being enthusiastic when your players score, but when it is 8-0, it can be construed of rubbing it into the faces of the opposition.
Still, personally I found Sundhage to be a class act. I wish her well as Swedish national coach. No scoop there. My gut feeling is that she will coach her native team, for which she starred as a player almost a generation ago -- at the UEFA Euro Women's Championship next year. Sweden is hosting that tournament and needs to do well. No make that excel. I can't think of anyone better suited for the job.
As for the U.S. job, there are many possibilities, including Jillian Ellis, a former assistant U.S. national coach and current development director for the U.S. women, U.S. Under-20 coach Steven Swanson and Australian national coach Tom Sermanni, who knows his stuff; he turned around a floundering New York Power team in the Women's United Soccer Association nine years ago. Australia and Serrmanni, incidentally, will be playing the U.S. on its Fan Tribute Tour in Carson, Calif. on Sept. 16 and in Commerce City three days later. A great time for a job interview, no?
If you are going for veteran leadership, there's always Tony DiCicco, who guided the Americans to the 1999 WWC and 1996 gold medal, and April Heinrichs, who has great insights into the women's game and who coached the U.S. to a third-place finish at the 2003 WWC and to a gold medal in 2004 and a silver in 2000.
U.S. Soccer traditionally likes to pick coaches inhouse, but Sunil Gulati likes to go for the best coach as well.
And I'll throw another name into the mix: Paul Riley, the head of the New York Fury and Long Island Fury who guided the Philadelphia Independence to the Women's Professional Soccer finals for two consecutive years. Yes, he is not part of the family, but given his background, he should at least be given some consideration.