soccer

A farewell to Pia: What she changed, what she didn’t

The dry-erase boards in USA TODAY’s gleaming conference rooms are rarely used for soccer tactics. But when Abby Wambach, Kate Markgraf and a couple of their U.S. teammates dropped by to visit a few months after Pia Sundhage was hired, we broke out the Xs and Os to chat about everything the Swedish coach was going to change with this team.

Little did we know that Sundhage would have an immense impact on this team without really overhauling the USA’s tactics. You could argue that the U.S. Under-20 team, under college soccer mainstay Steve Swanson, plays more of the much-hyped possession game than Sundhage’s team.

Instead, Sundhage adapted to the players around her. And Sundhage’s genius proved to be about something other than on-field style. She steadied the team with a guitar and a smile.

Sundhage’s legacy is one of boundless optimism, shining through with her team management, her singing voice, and a glass that was — as she reminded us in so many press conferences over the years — always half full.

Not that Sundhage was always easygoing. Natasha Kai was out, in, and finally out. Hope Solo’s memoir is full of praise for Pia, but the goalkeeper’s epilogue says Sundhage threatened to drop her from the team over the publication of her book.

The nattering nabobs of negativity on Twitter will always scoff that any coach should win with the depth of talent the USA possesses. They forget that Sundhage inherited an utter mess after the 2007 World Cup implosion. She kept most of the talented but combustible team together — injuries, not coaching decisions, accounted for most of the changes from 2007 to 2008 — and smoothed over the ill will.

And yet it got worse. Wambach shattered her leg in a pre-Olympic friendly. The U.S. women went to China, dropped their opener and sputtered offensively. They scraped into the semifinal and trailed Japan until makeshift forward Angela Hucles combined with Heather O’Reilly and Lori Chalupny for a four-goal outburst.

Sundhage’s faith in Solo paid off in the final. A magnificent goalkeeping performance kept it close. Carli Lloyd provided the goal.

(Solo? Lloyd? Olympic final? Didn’t we just see that? Yes, we did. And though the pugnacious Lloyd took a shot at her “doubters” after the 2012 final, Sundhage rolled with it. Her faith in Lloyd, whose every misstep threatens to crash Twitter, was vindicated.)

The chemistry-conscious Sundhage may not have brought in new players at the rate some fans wanted. But her constant presence at WPS games was worth the air miles, as Becky Sauerbrunn, Lori Lindsey and breakout star Megan Rapinoe built their cases for national team spots.

Tactically, perhaps the team was less predictable that it was in, say, the 2003 World Cup semifinal, when the unimaginative U.S. offense kept banging the ball in the air against a German defense well-equipped to deal with that threat. Yet this is still a team that thrives on athleticism rather than long spells of possession, and the USA would’ve accomplished much less in the past two years without Rapinoe and company floating crosses toward the imposing Wambach. The aerial game helped the USA rally to win Sundhage’s farewell game Wednesday night.

The changes were subtle. The challenges were not. Nothing comes easy for the U.S. women. If it didn’t come easy in 1999, when the rest of the world had only a couple of players making a living in the game, why would it come easily now?

So raise a glass to Pia. Half full, of course.

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4 replies »

  1. Great Article Beau. I can say she leaves me confused and occasionally angry with decisions, but every coach does that. She had to rebuild a broken program, and she made this a team to be proud of.

  2. What I wonder is if the personnel existed for Pia to have implemented a possession-oriented system and if so, could they have achieved similar or better results? I think this is something that many of the critics of her coaching and the NT’s style of play failed to consider.

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