Sundhage leads list to replace Ryan

October 26, 2007
CanalesBy Andrea Canales
(Archive)

Now that the dust has settled after Greg Ryan was ousted as coach of the U.S. women's national team, the speculation has begun as to who the team's new coach will be. Here are the leading candidates:

GettyImages / Jeff GrossPia Sundhage appears to be the leading candidate for the U.S. job.

1. Pia Sundhage -- The Swede was one of the top prospects for the job back in 2005 when Ryan was named coach. Since that time, Sundhage has added to her international coaching experience. Sundhage worked with Marika Domanski-Lyfors, Sweden's former national team coach, as a top assistant while Domanski-Lyfors was in charge of China this past World Cup.

Sundhage was a legendary performer in her playing days, retiring as the top goal scorer in the history of the Swedish national team with 71 goals in 146 games. She carried that high level of accomplishment into coaching -- she was named WUSA Coach of the Year in 2003 with the Boston Breakers. Her time in the WUSA helped familiarize her with the quirks of the American game.

On many counts, Sundhage appears the ideal candidate. With her recent resignation from China's team, the doors are open for negotiations with the USSF.

The primary argument against appointing Sundhage is double-edged. Hiring her would mean handing over the most successful soccer program in U.S. history to a foreigner. Others, however, could argue that an objective outsider's perspective is ideal for this new era.

2. Jillian Ellis -- Ellis has many of the requisites USSF president Sunil Gulati has mentioned as priorities for the next U.S. coach. Of all the candidates, she is the one who is currently most familiar with the up-and-coming talent in the national team pool. Not only is she the coach of one of the top women's college soccer programs in the nation, UCLA, but she has also led the U-21 U.S. women's national team to Nordic Cup titles in 2001 and 2005. The current squad under her charge, the U-20 team, finished a respectable second in the Pan-American games (falling to Brazil's senior national team in the final).

The England-born Ellis was a top college forward in her day, and her coaching heritage is especially impressive. Her father, John, is a well-respected coach who at one point guided Trinidad and Tobago's national team.

The knock on Ellis has been that, at least on the college level, she has never directed her program to claim the top prize. It could be that she hasn't figured out how to imbue her teams with killer instinct. This view is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Ellis has, in fact, led age-group national teams to championships.

3. Tony DiCicco -- DiCicco was at the helm of the U.S. team's greatest triumph in 1999 -- a World Cup title gained while under the glare of the biggest spotlight ever shown on the women's game. Along with leading the team to a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, the World Cup title was the high point of an already prestigious coaching career. A goalkeeper who earned a single cap for the men's national team in 1973, DiCicco also served as the commissioner of the WUSA, the now-defunct women's pro soccer league.

In DiCicco's favor is his open communication with players, his proven success and his talent for motivating his squads. His commentary during the World Cup matches proved that his insight to the women's game is still sharp, as he was quick to note several deficiencies in the U.S. team's play.

However, DiCicco has not coached at a high level since 1999, serving instead in a variety of administrative positions and running youth camps. The women's game has evolved since 1999, and there is no recent record for DiCicco to point to as evidence that he has kept up with the techniques and tactics needed to defeat the larger number of legitimate opponents in the sport today.

4. Jerry Smith -- Santa Clara's Smith has directed one of the most accomplished squads in the college game for over 20 years. Smith helped mold the development of some of the U.S. team's most creative players, such as Aly Wagner. The standard of excellence (including a title win in 2001) the Broncos' team has maintained during his tenure puts Smith in contention for a look.

Working against him is the fact that Smith has no experience coaching a women's professional team. He did coach the U.S. women's U-21 team to Nordic Cup titles in 2001 and 2002, but he has no recent national team experience with the player pool.. It also complicates matters that Brandi Chastain, a former player on the U.S. team, is Smith's wife. Gulati might want to avoid the whole "conflict of interest" speculation that appointing Smith could provide.

5. Jorge Barcellos -- Brazil's coach is in high demand after his team placed second at the World Cup, with China apparently pursuing him.

Barcellos followed his unexpected success with the U-20 team in 2006 (when Brazil, without Marta, defeated the U.S. in penalty kicks) to his current post with the senor women's squad. The results were been impressive, even though the players fell just short of their title dreams in the final versus Germany.

Brazil was by far the most entertaining and enjoyable team to watch at the World Cup this year. Even Gulati admitted that Brazil was the most technically gifted team at the tournament.

If the U.S. wants a coach to develop better technique among players, then perhaps it makes sense to start with the coach of the team that displayed the best skill.

Still, Barcellos is a long shot, especially given how much Gulati emphasized that he would impress on the search committee the need to choose a coach as soon as possible. Gulati also mentioned that he would like a coach who is familiar with the American game, and Barcellos simply doesn't meet the standard on that count.

The search committee of Mia Hamm, Dan Flynn and Gulati expects to pick the individual who will best steer the immediate future course of the USWNT in about a month. Sundhage is far and away the favorite, but a dark horse may yet emerge.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.