Sundhage to reshape U.S. team's offensive style
Pia Sundhage didn't care that many of the boys she grew up playing soccer with in Sweden didn't think she belonged out there with them, kicking the ball. She loved the game, and she joined in, proving herself to be incredibly adept.
Now, Sundhage (pronounced Soond-hahg-eh) wades into a similar sort of challenge, becoming the first foreigner to coach the vaunted U.S. women's national team.
It is to the U.S. Soccer Federation's credit that it has swallowed its pride about running a completely homegrown success and opened the door to outside influence. Sundhage has the chance to be the fresh air that brings new life to the program.
"Together we will create the environment that brings out the best in each other," said Sundhage of working with her new players. "I know that I have a passion for the game. I love the challenge."
It will not be an easy task, however.
The USWNT has turned the corner from the early pioneering days when the goal for the team was not only to win, but to gain acceptance and recognition in the American sporting landscape. To a large degree, this goal was achieved. The team was triumphant on the field -- with two World Cup titles (1991 and 1999) and two Olympic championships (1996 and 2004) -- and spawned one of the greatest icons in the sport, Mia Hamm.
However, the days of Hamm are gone, although she was on the small search committee that chose to appoint Sundhage. The Swede was one of about 10 coaches considered, though only the top three were interviewed.
"I think we've made the best choice possible," said U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati.
Indeed, it's hard to find any weakness in Sundhage's credentials. She was a top player with Sweden's national team for many years, finishing her career as the top goal scorer in Swedish history (71 goals). She is familiar with the American game, having worked as a scout for the USWNT in 2004 and as a professional coach in the WUSA for all three years of the league.
Yet in a time period when the women's game has grown in competition like no other, the U.S. team settled into a more closed environment. Not only did the federation promote from within, installing assistant Greg Ryan in the post, but in the absence of a domestic pro league, it also established a residency program that kept the same players on the team, constantly practicing with and against each other.
Sundhage made immediate plans to shake up that establishment. Though the players originally were scheduled to have the rest of the year off, Sundhage has set up a camp in December to evaluate them and presumably decide which ones she intends to work with on the team.
"I'm eager to start work," Sundhage said.
She doesn't have time to waste, as the USSF has granted her only a one-year contract, meaning the extension of her post will be dependent almost entirely on the outcome of the 2008 Olympics.
Gulati has hedged his bets with the length of the contract, giving Sundhage a conveniently short leash to prove herself.
"It wouldn't make sense," Gulati said of a longer contract. "We want to see over the next year how the program develops. We're hoping she'll be with us for a long time."
One thing Sundhage made clear was that remaking the U.S. team's current offensive style, which proved woefully inadequate and unimaginative at the World Cup in September, would be a top priority. Though afflicted with a broken toe, striker Abby Wambach was still the team's focus point on nearly every ball. This direct style proved all too easy for Brazil to break apart in the semifinals, leading to a worst-ever 4-0 loss for the national team.
"We can improve the game, especially the attacking style," Sundhage said.
As other teams around the world improve in the technical aspects of the women's game, some people believe the U.S. cannot match the precision passing, dribbling and technique developing elsewhere. It's ironic that it is a foreigner who seems to have more faith in the ability of the Americans to execute without depending mainly on athleticism.
"The American players are technical enough and fit enough to keep the ball," Sundhage said. "They can keep possession and then find the right moment to penetrate. That will be very successful."
It might also be that Sundhage's status as an outsider is her strength. She did not, for example, appear to be intimidated by the controversy that enveloped the team at the World Cup -- the unexpected benching of starting goalkeeper Hope Solo for Briana Scurry and Solo's frustrated reaction to the decision in comments to the media. That triggered accusations of betrayal from team members, who decided, along with Ryan, that Solo would be separated from the team for the rest of the tournament.
Sundhage emphasized that open communication would be the key to solving the situation.
"We will respect each other. Hope is a good goalkeeper, and we have to move on."
A fresh start is certainly one of the best ways to do just that.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.