US Women’s National Team out head coach Pia Sundhage announced on Saturday that she will not be returning to the team when her contract expires at the end of November. Instead she will be returning to her home country of Sweden where she will begin coaching its national team on December 1.
Sundhage spoke about how much she misses her home and that she did not feel that she could give another four years to the US team. Coaching the national team in Sweden, the team for which she was a star as a player, has always been her dream job.
Sundhage has presided over a period in which the USWNT took home two Gold Medals and made it to the final of the Women’s World Cup for the first time in 12 years.
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Sundhage took over the USWNT at a chaotic time for the team. She replaced Greg Ryan, who made the idiotic controversial decision to bench Hope Solo in favor of Brianna Scurry in the semifinals of the Word Cup in China in 2007. Solo’s benching led her to make comments to the media calling into question not only her benching but asserting that she would have made the saves that Scurry did not. Solo was dismissed from the team for its final game of the tournament and Ryan’s contact was not renewed.
Sundhage had eight months to turn the team that came in third at the World Cup into the team that took home gold at the 2008 Olympics. Sundhage took over a team that was still fractured from the World Cup and knitted it back together with patience and a willingness to listen to her players without judgment. She did require them to love each other but she set a tone of respect for the team that carried over onto the field.
Solo credited Sundhage with helping her keep going even when she was not exactly a popular member of the team.
“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.”
Sundhage’s even keel, fun loving nature, and patience with her players were hallmarks of this very successful era for the USWNT. Her players appeared to love her and to love playing for her. She was famous for singing for the team and even for fans (she sang at the game on Saturday as part of her farewell announcement).
Sundhage changed a lot about the USWNT from its playing style to its culture and the results (88-6-10 record) speak for themselves. By coming out in 2010 she may have paved the way both for other coaches and players, such as Megan Rapinoe, to come out of the closet. The USWNT was lucky to have her and will miss this much beloved coach. I’ll miss her zany antics on the sidelines and in press conferences. It’s not often you find a coach at that level who can remain loose enough to burst into song spontaneously during such pressure filled moments.
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What do you think Sundhage’s legacy will be? Who would you like to see on the sidelines next?