Pia Sundhage was the best USWNT manager ever

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

When Pia Sundhage took over as manager of the U.S. women's national team in 2007, one of her first meetings with her players saw her sing "The Times They Are A-Changin'." After five years, two Olympic triumphs and one World Cup final, Sundhage will have to change her tune to "Homeward Bound".

The U.S. Soccer Federation announced Saturday that, after meeting with USSF President Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn, Sundhage made the decision not to renew her contract with the USSF and to return to her native Sweden to pursue coaching opportunities there. Given the recent resignation of Thomas Denerby as coach of the Sweden women's national team, it is expected that Sundhage will take over that program.

"It certainly wasn't an easy decision for U.S. Soccer or Pia," Gulati said in a news release. "She deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the amazing success the U.S. women's national team had during the past five years."

Sundhage added, "It was an honor to be able to coach these players for five years, and I learned a tremendous amount from them. I want to thank the players and all my assistant coaches for making me better."

The relationship was by no means one-way traffic, and it can be argued that Sundhage is the best manager the team has had in its illustrious history. Her U.S. squads won 11 tournaments and compiled a record of 88-6-10. There were some rocky moments, in particular the World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico that forced the Americans to win a playoff against Italy. Yet reaching three major finals, and winning two of them, gives Sundhage as enviable a résumé as anyone who has ever led the program.

Sundhage's contribution goes well beyond mere numbers, as well. When she took over the team five years ago, it was a dysfunctional mess. The hangover from the team's blowout loss to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup was massive, especially in the aftermath of Hope Solo's public criticism of then-coach Greg Ryan and her subsequent banishment from the team.

Yet Sundhage's consistently upbeat approach, and her ability to not only build relationships with her players but even mend fences between individual performers, was critical. She stressed that her players didn't need to forget what happened but did have to forgive.

Such deft player management helped yield some impressive results, and, although the U.S. team's success came down to a variety of factors, the undeniable mentality fashioned by Sundhage was critical. The self-belief that was created not only allowed the team to win games when the players were playing well but also, more critically, when they weren't. The Olympic final was a testament to this belief, with the Americans prevailing 2-1 despite being outplayed by Japan for long stretches.

Sundhage also has had an impact in terms of the team's style. She was always pushing for the U.S. side to play a more sophisticated brand of soccer, one that went beyond the traditional reliance on athleticism and fitness. And, even by this measure, she has largely succeeded.

Are there moments when it looks as though the U.S. plays too direct? Of course, but, when a coach has forwards the likes of Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan at her disposal, she would be foolish not to have that approach in her tactical arsenal. But Sundhage also found room in her lineup for more creative, unpredictable players such as Lauren Cheney and Megan Rapinoe, which resulted in a varied attack that opponents found more difficult to defend.

Is there more work to be done? Of course. The recent Olympic final reveals a team with technical ability that still needs improvement. With several players pondering retirement, the defense will need to be retooled, as well.

Whether that responsibility falls to a coach within the USSF hierarchy, a manager from the college ranks or someone from the now-defunct WPS remains to be seen.

But the U.S. team is better now than it was when Sundhage took over. She can walk away from the U.S. post with absolutely no regrets, and with the contentment that comes with a job well done.

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