Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- Pia Sundhage came into the first meeting with her new team, pulled out her guitar and began playing the Bob Dylan classic, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
"Admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone," she sang. "If your time to you is worth savin' then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin'.
With that, Sundhage let the Americans know she'd be a coach unlike any other they'd had.
That's definitely been true -- and it goes beyond Sundhage's performing skills and foreign passport. She has built players up with constructive criticism rather than breaking them down by yelling and screaming. She has modified the style of play that had brought the U.S. success for so many years so the Americans can stay at the top of the game as the rest of the world improves.
Most importantly, she found a way to heal the bitterness and hard feelings that threatened to destroy the Americans following their ugly exit from the 2007 World Cup just a few months before she took over.
"She was everything we needed," said goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose criticism of then-coach Greg Ryan was the flashpoint for the World Cup turmoil. "At that point in time, it almost didn't matter who came in because we needed somebody to lead us and we needed somebody to believe in. Our team was broken, we were down and out, there were a lot of fires to be put out, and she happened to be perfect person because she could lead us."
With a spot in the quarterfinals already secured, the U.S. women wrap up group play Wednesday against Sundhage's native Sweden at the Women's World Cup.
Though Sundhage is nonplussed at the prospect of facing her home country ("For me, it's not Sweden. It's just a team.") the game will put the spotlight squarely on the woman whose intelligence, confidence and unflinching optimism has transformed a fractured team into Olympic gold medalists and, just maybe, World Cup champions for a third time.
"Everything that we had hoped for in making the decision to hire her, she's lived up to," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said.
Sundhage is considered one of the greatest players the women's game has ever had, scoring 71 goals in a 22-year international career. She, not Mia Hamm or Birgit Prinz or Marta, is still the face of women's soccer in Sweden, which she led to the title at the first European Women's Championship in 1984 and the bronze medal at the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991. She remains so celebrated in Sweden that her name was floated as a possible coach of the men's team after it failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
She was considered for the U.S. job when Ryan was hired in 2005, but didn't have enough head coaching experience. Though Sundhage coached the Boston Breakers in 2003 before the WUSA folded, most of her experience was with Sweden's youth teams.
When the Americans were in the market for a coach again two years later, Sundhage's name topped the list.
"She still didn't have a lot of experience as a head coach at the top level. But she obviously had a great understanding of the game," Gulati said. "We asked her if she couldn't be the head coach of the women's national team if she'd be willing to take another role. She was quite firm in her answer, which was no. That both surprised and impressed me, frankly. Because she hadn't been a head coach at that level, but was very confident in her ability and thought the time was right for her."
Though Sundhage had told Gulati she wanted to retool the U.S. style, that would have to wait. The Beijing Olympics were just eight months away when she was hired in November 2007, and the tournament is second only to the World Cup in importance in the women's game.
First, though, Sundhage had to address the tensions still simmering from the World Cup.
"There was a lot that went on in the '07 World Cup," Carli Lloyd said. "We needed something, we kind of needed to start fresh."
The Americans were favorites to win in China, carrying a 51-game unbeaten streak into the semifinals against Brazil. But Ryan made the surprise decision to start Briana Scurry against Brazil instead of 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 decision, 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, told his contract would not be renewed when it expired in December.
"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. "When I came, I said, 'We need goalkeepers.' So we had three goalkeepers. 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."
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.
For Solo, the unconditional support was rejuvenating.
"I don't know if I could have made it back in '08 without her," Solo said. "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."
Solo's presence was critical for the Americans in Beijing, particularly after the U.S. lost leading scorer Abby Wambach to a broken leg in the final warm-up game. She came up with one big stop after another in the gold-medal game against old nemesis Brazil before Lloyd scored in the sixth minute of extra time for the 1-0 victory.
It was the second straight gold medal for the Americans, and third overall.
With the Olympics over, Sundhage was free to reshape the team. She brought in new and younger players. And she began replacing the physical, forward-based attack the U.S. had used for years with a more European, possession-oriented game where plays are created through the midfield. Teams around the world were improving, and the Americans needed to be less predictable.
"I was always saying the States played a little too direct," Sundhage said. "They've been very, very successful, don't get me wrong. So I wanted to change that, but it couldn't be too big of a change. With a successful team, you can't change too much."
The style she envisions is similar to the one perfected by Barcelona. When it works, it can frustrate opponents like nothing else.
But getting accustomed to it brought its own frustrations.
"It's sometimes gotten the best of us because we have some players, like myself, who are old school and like to get the ball more, (play) a physically direct style. And when things aren't going well, I like to go back to what I know," said Wambach, whose 118 career goals are third-most by a U.S. player. "Sometimes it gets the best of us, and we've seen that a couple times this year with some of the losses."
After going more than two years without a loss, the Americans dropped three in a five-month span starting with a shocking upset by Mexico in November in regional World Cup qualifying. The defeat was the first to Mexico in their 26 games, and forced the world's No. 1 team to win a two-game playoff with Italy just to get to Germany.
Since the tournament began, however, the Americans seem to have regained the mojo that made them the world's most dominant team for the better part of two decades. Five different players have scored, and only Japan (six) has more goals. Their practices are filled with laughter and smiles, and they're confident enough to choreograph celebrations for when they score.
"This feels different than any other world championship that I've been in. The swagger factor, the confidence factor," Wambach said. "I'm not going to sit here and say in our future we don't have 10 minutes of time where we struggle. But I think that there's this belief in each other."
And that, defender Christie Rampone said, is a credit to Sundhage.
"We had a bumpy road to make it to begin with," Sundhage said. "But if you stay humble and if you enjoy and look at the game in a positive way and you have high expectations -- which we all have on this team -- we can deal with that. It's like life, its ups and downs. Put it together, come together and play together. I think that's the best way to enjoy the game."