Sundhage’s comments on USWNT players add hype to showdown

WINNIPEG, Manitoba —

It’s a good thing U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd has, as she said, gone "off the grid" for the entire month of the Women’s World Cup. If Lloyd was reading newspapers or scrolling the Internet or clicking through Twitter, she might come across a mind-rattling comment made by her former United States women’s national team coach.

"Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach, by the way. When she felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players,” Pia Sundhage was quoted as saying in a story published Wednesday by The New York Times. "But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst,” Sundhage said, adding for extra emphasis: "It was so delicate, so, so delicate.”

For Sundhage, the "singing" coach now at the helm for her native Sweden, it’s clear that the tune she’s dialed up for Lloyd and the Americans is John Lennon’s "Mind Games.”

The insight into the psyche of Lloyd — a self-proclaimed New Jersey girl with the requisite Jersey attitude — was made a few months ago by Sundhage during an interview in Sweden. But there’s little doubt Sundhage knew full well those comments would be perfectly timed for public consumption just ahead of what portends to be an epic showdown between the U.S. and Sweden (live, Friday, FOX, FOX Sports Go, 7 p.m. ET) in Women’s World Cup group play in Winnipeg.

There were other comments, too. Sundhage — the greatest female player ever for Sweden and now one of its most famous and respected cultural heroines — called 40-year-old Christie Rampone "probably the best captain I’ve ever seen, including myself.” Hope Solo, Sundhage said, was one of the most challenging players she has ever coached, "especially when it comes to trouble."

Abby Wambach, who just turned 35 and looked every bit of it during the U.S. opener against Australia on Monday, would not be a starter if Sundhage was still coaching the U.S. If it’s true that the U.S. team has created a bubble for itself, as Wambach and Lloyd suggest, then these comments will just waft off into cyberspace.

No problem, right?

Given the social media savvy and the wired tendencies of so many players on the U.S. squad, it’s difficult to imagine that Sundhage’s assessments won’t get back to the players. On that score, Sundhage’s assessment of Lloyd could be the most disconcerting, in part because the entire work of the U.S. midfield is very suspect at this point.

Lloyd, who was positioned as an outside midfielder for many of the matches the U.S. played in 2014 and early 2015, and Lauren Holiday, the U.S. center mid, have struggled to play out the roles coach Jill Ellis has assigned. That was evident against Australia, where ball control was largely absent and Lloyd, who can be devastating on the attack, was rendered largely ineffective.

If Sundhage has found a way to tap into a real source of insecurity in the U.S. formation and strategy, will that have a rattling effect on Lloyd? Sundhage should hope Lloyd is truly off the grid. Lloyd and Holiday have, at times, barely been able to conceal their confusion or frustration with their assignments, and to counter the early-game midfield control issues, Ellis has resorted to sending in Tobin Heath later in games to settle things down. Sundhage has now fed into this potential raw nerve.

On the issue of managing Solo, Sundhage’s comments could also enrage the combative U.S. keeper. Solo has great respect for Sundhage, whom Solo credits for quickly diffusing the wretched fallout from Solo’s 2007 U.S. national team implosion at the World Cup. After calling out her coach for not starting Solo against Brazil in the quarterfinals — a game that saw Briana Scurry allow four goals in the Brazil victory — Solo was basically banished by her teammates. It was Sundhage, who was hired by U.S. Soccer within months after that nasty incident, who quickly and easily opened the door for Solo and her teammates to reconcile and move on.

Now Solo hears that Sundhage found her one of the most challenging? It’s no surprise, but it’s not something Solo would want to hear in the hours before the United States takes on Sweden.

On the issue of Wambach, Sundhage and the USA legend are friends. Sundhage, like others, made no secret of the fact that she feels Wambach is not fast enough to be a starter any longer. Wambach can accept that, she says. However, Sundhage again has gone right at a critical part of the U.S.’s faltering offense by blatantly stating that Wambach should only come off the bench.

Why is Sundhage more staunchly able to diagnose that Wambach’s role should be more limited? Why hasn’t Ellis been able to make this a principle element of the U.S. lineup?

Sundhage’s ability to so aptly scout the U.S. could suggest how much the U.S. women’s national team did not want to see Sundhage leave. Her greatest strength is game management, and since Sundhage eschewed duties regarding player development or other issues with the wider U.S. Soccer development programs, this left Sundhage free to focus on what she does best: Run a great team.

When Sundhage left the U.S. job in 2012 to return to Sweden — a job she said she only took because Sweden was going to host the European Championships — the U.S. women’s national team was then cast into a coaching turmoil. Ellis, who had been a director of player development and who worked with Sundhage closely, declined the coaching position citing family reasons. But when Tom Sermanni, the former Australia coach, was abruptly fired a year ago, Ellis was installed.

This World Cup will be a referendum on Ellis, and it will also be a referendum on whether U.S. Soccer really needs a coach at the helm of the U.S. team that is broadly mindful of everything taking place in women’s soccer, or whether it wants a coach that has a more dynamic feel for its team. Tony DiCicco, another former coach, has made no secret that coaching the U.S. women’s national team is as much about invigorating a team’s identity as it is X’s and O’s. Sundhage, too, manipulated her players not by befriending them or caring deeply about their feelings, but by encouraging them to be free.

Granted, the loss of Alex Morgan for the entire spring with a bruised knee bone has taken away a huge part of the U.S. attack. But even with Morgan out, the U.S. seemed to suffer up front on Monday with Wambach starting ahead of Amy Rodriguez. Sydney Leroux worked extremely hard on her side of the attack. Even with her desire to shoot and score, Leroux pulled up after a great run and slid a perfect pass to Christen Press for a U.S. goal.

It seemed clear as the game wore against Australia on that Wambach was not going to be part of those kinds of plays. And the longball launches to Wambach, which she usually does turn into header goals, found Wambach unable to convert. In other words, Sundhage seems to be right about Wambach just as she accurately describes issues with some of the other top U.S. players (Lloyd and Solo).

There’s no question that the issue of Sundhage’s insight into the U.S. team was going to make for an epic showdown between the two teams. The U.S. players understand that their former coach knows them better than anyone. But Sundhage’s thoughts are particularly truthful and, potentially, stinging. That can be either good for the U.S. if it fires them up and unifies them, or not so good, if it creates doubt.

Mind games have a way of working. Sundhage is a masterful coach. It’s probably why the U.S. players hated to see her go.