FOX Soccer Exclusive
Sundhage returning US back to basics
Pia Sundhage is not your ordinary coach.
Sundhage is the free-spirit, guitar-playing, wide-smiling coach who is also one of the few openly gay people in her profession. This is not a dour Bill Belichick type, stalking the sidelines, scowling at players and barking orders. In fact, Sundhage has gone in entirely the opposite direction, favoring a loose and relaxed environment. She’s has helped the US team learn how to have fun.
Fun is nice, but it’s winning that matters — and in Sundhage’s case, it’s hard to argue with the results. Since she took over before the 2008 Olympics, Sundhage has helped the Americans win an Olympic gold medal and come within a penalty kick shootout of winning a World Cup. Thursday’s Olympic Final against Japan will be her team’s third major tournament final out of three.
Despite that success, Sundhage enters Thursday’s final knowing it could be her final tournament match as the US head coach. Her current contract expires at the end of this year and talks with US Soccer will take place until after the Olympics. A year ago, Sundhage suggested that she would like to coach her native Sweden’s national team, though recently she has been coyer about her future.
“I have a contract until the end of this year and if I am still the USA coach after that I would be happy,” Sundhage said during the team’s training camp in May. “I’m someone who likes to focus on the present.”
Sundhage’s focus has helped transform the United States from a team that relied on American athletic dominance, into one with a greater emphasis on technical play. It remains a work in progress. Sundhage’s quest to find the perfect blend of finesse and physical play has even led her to publicly acknowledge that her team could stand to play more like Japan, the team that has stood in their way of world dominance.
“They’re very comfortable with the ball and they work together,” Sundhage said of Japan. “It’s not about them having one player who is fantastic and is the star. They play as a team, they knock around the ball and they do it together. Also, the way they defend, they’re committed and everyone is on the same page.”
“They stay loyal to the game plan,” Sundhage added. “They don’t stress playing, which I think is pretty cool.”
Stress is something Sundhage knows well. Fact is, she has seen her team pull off some of the most heart-racing comebacks in recent memory. As if last year’s World Cup heroics didn’t do enough to show the team’s never-say-die spirit, the USA came back three times in Monday’s semifinal versus Canada before Alex Morgan’s extra-time winner.
Sundhage’s fingerprints were all over that match. There was Megan Rapinoe, who Sundhage stuck with despite two subpar games prior to Monday. Rapinoe rewarded Sundhage’s faith with a masterful two-goal effort that kept the Americans alive against Canada.
Plus, the winning goal showed Sundhage’s handiwork as she was able to bring veteran Heather O’Reilly off the bench to deliver the game-winning assist. O’Reilly has impressed on several occasions in the Olympics despite having been relegated to back-up duties during the tournament. Sundhage gave the veteran midfielder enough belief to keep on contributing and never let her move from the starting lineup keep her down.
For all the success the US team has had under Sundhage, her tenure as head coach will ultimately be measured by titles won which makes Thursday’s final a vital one. A victory against Japan would not only help ease the pain of last year’s World Cup Final loss, it would serve as clear evidence that Sundhage’s run as USA head coach has been a successful one.
Even if the Americans fall short against Japan again, and Sundhage’s time in charge of the USA ends in 2012, her time as US head coach will have been a significant one. Sundhage not only helped the team through a period of transition following the disappointment of the 2007 World Cup, but also showed a new generation of American talent that they can play beautiful soccer while having fun in the process.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.