BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – American, foreign-born, male, female — members of the U.S. women's soccer team really don't have a preference when it comes to their new coach.
All that matters is they get the right coach.
"Someone who's good enough, that's all I care about," Abby Wambach said Friday. "Be the person who brings the World Cup back."
The U.S. women face Germany on Saturday in the latest stop on their post-Olympic victory tour. But this isn't your standard, no-pressure exhibition. The Americans and Germans are the two top-ranked teams in the world. And after failing to qualify for the London Games, the Germans will be itching to salvage their year by knocking off the Olympic champions.
The game also will be the Americans' first in five years without Pia Sundhage as their coach. Sundhage announced in September that she was leaving, having led the Americans to back-to-back Olympic gold medals as well as their first World Cup final in 12 years. She finished with a 91-6-10 record, including a 23-1-1 record this year alone.
Sundhage has since taken over as the women's national team coach in her native Sweden.
"It's definitely a different atmosphere," said Carli Lloyd, who scored both goals in the Olympic final, a 2-1 victory over Japan. "There's talk of a league but we don't really know too much about it. We're wondering who our new coach is going to be.
"There's a lot of unknowns right now," Lloyd said. "We'll get it all sorted out."
Jill Ellis, the development director for the U.S. women's national teams, is serving as interim coach until a replacement for Sundhage is found. U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said earlier this month that he hoped to select the new coach by late October or November, though it's possible the new coach might not start until January — especially if the coach is involved in an NCAA tournament.
Gulati said there had been 25 to 30 inquiries, both from within the U.S. and abroad, about replacing Sundhage. Among the reported candidates are Tony DiCicco, who led the Americans to the World Cup title in 1999, and Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum, who took over the Under-23 women's team earlier this year. The Irish won NCAA titles in 2004 and 2010 under Waldrum, and were runner-ups three other times.
Though the players don't know who is on the list, U.S. captain Christie Rampone said they have been kept informed about the process. The search committee has asked players what coaches they've played for and what kind of coach they want.
"A coach that would continue to grow this team," Rampone said about her criteria. "A coach who will have good leadership qualities, because there are so many successful people on this team."
Indeed, the women's team has come a long way from the days when they played, essentially, part-time, with only a few hundred people turning out for their games. The U.S. is on a first-name basis with Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, and they get the rock-star treatment pretty much everywhere they go. Almost 500 people showed up just to watch Friday's training session, and Saturday's game is a near sell-out with 18,000 tickets already sold.
Players have more demands on their time than ever before between endorsements and appearances — Wambach said she's been home all of seven days since the Olympics — and the new coach will have to be strong enough to command accountability, on and off the field.
"We need a strong person to come in and add to the history that this team, specifically, has created in the last two years," Wambach said. "... This team is scary good, and we need to have someone who can put all the Xs and Os together."
The bottom line, though, is finding someone who will maintain the high standard the Americans have become accustomed to. The U.S. women have reached the final of the last three major tournaments, winning the Olympic titles in London and Beijing in 2008. They lost the World Cup final to Japan in a penalty shootout.
But the chasm-like gap the U.S. once had on the rest of the world is closing, with Japan and France emerging to join traditional powerhouses Germany, Brazil and Sweden.
"The best candidate would be someone who can come in and elevate our game," Lloyd said.
There is no major tournament until the 2015 World Cup in Canada, so Gulati and the search committee don't have to rush their choice. The Americans have three more exhibitions scheduled after Saturday's game against Germany. They face Germany again on Tuesday in East Hartford, Conn., then play Ireland twice, on Nov. 28 in Portland, Ore., and again on Dec. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.
"We have high expectations," Wambach said. "And we believe we deserve the best."
Notes: Rampone turned 37 in June, but remains among the world's best defenders and is not ruling out sticking around until the next World Cup. "I am open-minded," she said. "If I get a call-in, I don't think I would decline it. I'd love to continue to play. But I'm realistic as well, knowing where I am in my career and my age. I still feel great, and that's why I'm not giving it up."