Published September 01, 2012
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The U.S. women's soccer team's post-Olympic victory tour also will be a goodbye tour.
Coach Pia Sundhage is stepping down, returning to her native Sweden after leading the Americans to consecutive gold medals and their first World Cup final in 12 years. The announcement of her departure Saturday came just a few hours before the U.S. women began their "victory tour" against Costa Rica in the hometown of star Abby Wambach.
"I want to thank all the players and all of my assistant coaches for making me better," Sundhage said in a statement. "Before I took this job, I always admired the spirit and character of the U.S. team, but to experience that firsthand on the training field and from the bench as their coach was truly special and something I will treasure for the rest of my life."
The Americans are 88-6-10 since Sundhage took over in 2007, and made the final of all three major tournaments during her tenure. Their 2-1 victory over Japan in last month's Olympic final was a rematch of the 2011 World Cup final and avenged the most painful loss in team history.
During a pre-game interview at midfield Saturday, Sundhage broke into song when asked what message she wanted to deliver fans regarding her departure. To cheers from the sold-out Sahlen's Stadium that holds more than 13,000 people, Sundhage took the microphone and sang a few lines from the Bob Dylan-written "If Not For You," which became a hit for Olivia Newton-John.
It proved a fitting coda — she also sang a Dylan tune at the first team meeting five years ago.
U.S. Soccer said it will begin searching for a new coach immediately, but has no timetable for hiring a successor. There is no major tournament until the next World Cup in 2015.
Sundhage is expected to stay with the Americans for at least the next two games of their victory tour, a pair of exhibitions against Australia on Sept. 16 in Carson, Calif., and Sept. 19 in Commerce City, Colo. The U.S. then plays two-time World Cup champion Germany on Oct. 20 in Bridgeview, Ill., and Oct. 23 in East Hartford, Conn.
Sundhage's departure is not exactly a surprise. She has long expressed an interest in returning home, and is sure to be a top candidate to replace Thomas Dennerby, who resigned last month after eight years as coach of the Swedish women's team. Sundhage is still the face of women's soccer in Sweden, which she led to the title as a player at the first European Women's Championship in 1984 and the bronze medal at the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991.
She finished her 22-year international career with 71 goals.
"I have to admit I've been away from my home for five years," Sundhage said Friday after practice. "The fact that Sweden is hosting the European championship (in 2013), that's a big thing of course. ... I want to do the right thing with U.S. Soccer and start with talking with them and see if I can give another four years. And that's a key, because this team, they deserve somebody that's committed 110 percent."
Sundhage had several coaching stints, including head coach of the Under-19 Swedish team and assistant with the Chinese women's national team before taking over the USA team. Her calm demeanor and relentlessly positive attitude were exactly what was needed for a U.S. team still wounded and raw from the debacle of the 2007 World Cup in China.
The Americans went to China favored to win their third title, and carried a 51-game unbeaten streak into the semifinals against Brazil. But then-coach Greg Ryan made the surprise decision to start Briana Scurry against Brazil instead of Hope Solo, who had a shutout streak of nearly 300 minutes going and had started all but four of the Americans' 19 games that season. The move was a disaster; a 4-0 loss that was the worst defeat in U.S. history.
Afterward, Solo ripped Ryan's move, saying, "It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that."
Ryan dismissed Solo from the team, not allowing her on the bench for the third-place game. She even had to fly home from China on her own. The Americans managed to win the bronze medal, but the damage was done. A month later, Ryan was essentially fired when he was told his contract would not be renewed when it expired in December.
Sundhage did not force her players to be nice to each other — that's not her way. But she asked questions and listened to the answers, not judging one way or the other. That air of civility extended to practices and team meetings, where Sundhage refused to be negative or harsh, choosing instead to focus on what her team was doing well.
"I don't expect them to forget what happened — and I got different kinds of stories of what happened — but I expect them to forgive," Sundhage said last year.
She set the tone from her first team meeting, when she pulled out her guitar and played Dylan's classic, "The Times They Are A-Changin."
"When I came, I said, 'We need goalkeepers.' So we had three goalkeepers," Sundhage said. "Then we said, 'I want to win, do you want to win? Yes. Then you have to do this together. It will be impossible if you have something in the group that's not 100 percent. You have to do it together and be respectful.' We moved on."
Just eight months after Sundhage took over, the Americans beat Brazil for the 2008 Olympic title — with Solo coming up with one big save after another.
"I don't know if I could have made it back in '08 without her," Solo said last year. "Every day after training, Pia would walk up to me and she'd be like, 'Hope, how you doing today?' I faked it. I was like, 'I'm fine.' Next day, same thing, 'I'm fine.' I remember one breakthrough day, I was like, 'I'm OK Pia.' She was like, 'It's kind of tough, huh? Hang in there.'"
"I knew she asked me every day because she saw I was struggling," Solo said. "She wasn't pushing me to talk. But she put her hand out and was ready to help me through it when I was ready. It was nice. I needed somebody with that patience."
Following their Beijing victory, Sundhage began remaking the U.S. team.
For years, the Americans had relied on a physical, forward-based attack that took advantage of their size, speed and depth. But with teams around the world improving, Sundhage felt they needed to adopt a more European, possession-oriented game where plays are created through the midfield to stay ahead. She brought in young players like Alex Morgan, Kelley O'Hara and Sydney Leroux, who will be mainstays of the U.S. team for years to come.
The transition has not always been easy. After going more than two years without a loss, the Americans dropped three games in a five-month span, beginning with a shocking loss to Mexico in November 2010 in World Cup qualifying.
Even in London, Sundhage occasionally fretted about the way the Americans played.
"It doesn't matter if it's 2-0, 3-0 or whatever, because I know how we can play," she said.
But now that will be someone else's concern.
"Joy," Sundhage said Friday when she asked what she wanted to see during the tour. "I would think that is the most important thing."