Women's Olympics: Pia embraces change

Swede Pia Sundhage, installed as U.S women's national team coach following the debacle at the 2007 Women's World Cup, has stressed the need for change. And that change has included the emergence of three young players bound for the Olympics.

The cycles and dynamics of women's international soccer are unique; a Women's World Cup is followed in the next year by an Olympic tournament, after which three years elapse until the next World Cup is played.

Continuity from a World Cup to the Olympics would seem straightforward, since the two events are separated by 12 months, more or less, and unlike the men's soccer tournament, both events use the same eligibility requirements without any age restrictions. Whereas men's Olympic coach Peter Nowak juggles myriad over-age options for a roster of mostly under-23 players, a women's coach need not field two separate squads.

But a shocking 4-0 loss to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinals and a roiling goalkeeper controversy prodded U.S. Soccer into action; it dismissed head coach Greg Ryan, who'd been an assistant under predecessor April Heinrichs, and hired former Swedish international midfielder Pia Sundhage to a short-term contract that runs only through the Olympics.

Nine months into her tenure, prior to which she worked as an assistant coach with China's national team, she's taking the Americans to that country for her first test as head coach of a major competition.

"I would say the strength of this team is that they are brave and can play in different systems," says Sundhage, who coached with WUSA teams in Philadelphia and Boston during that league's three-year existence that ended in 2003. "We have different players. We talked about 'change' since I started and they seemed to embrace that word. It hasn't been too much of a change and it hasn't been too little, either."

Change isn't why she's named three players age 22 and younger to her roster of 18. They have played in world championships at U-19 and U-20 levels but have never set foot on the field in a major soccer competition. "If you look at all three of them," says Sundhage, "they all each offer something different. It's good to have some youth players coming with a lot of energy."

The inclusion of midfielder Tobin Heath, forward Amy Rodriguez, and defender Rachel Buehler has little to do with the post-Olympics era and everything to do with what happens during the middle two weeks of August. Whether they start or come off the bench, they will play important roles on a team that ranks among the best in the world yet will need special plays at critical moments to beat co-favorites Brazil and Germany.

"Pia's always asking me to make dynamic runs, and to get the ball and turn, to be dangerous," says Rodriguez, who came off the bench to score against Brazil in a June friendly, and did the same thing a month later. "She wants me to get into the attack and be dangerous and put the defense under pressure, add a little flair and give something it doesn't already have. My role on this team has been a super-sub; you want to come in and make a difference."

Rodriguez earned five caps in 2005 and 2006 but didn't play a minute for the national team in 2007, so instead she concentrated on leading USC to its first women's national soccer championship. A month later, her phone rang.

"I had no clue to be honest with you," she says. "I got a surprise call in January to get invited. I wasn't expecting it at all. I came into that first camp at Home Depot Center and Pia kept inviting me back. She saw something she liked in my style of play. I just continued to play under her and now I'm here."

Fortune hasn't smoothed the transition to Sundhage's reign. Knee injuries have deprived her of two veterans, defender Cat Whitehill and midfielder Leslie Osborne, and all-time caps leader Kristine Lilly is taking the Olympics off to start a family.

Sundhage defused the goalkeeping controversy by dropping Briana Scurry, a veteran of three Olympic tournaments and three World Cups. Hope Solo is the starter, as she had been last year at the World Cup until Ryan replaced her with Scurry for the semifinal thrashing by Brazil. Nicole Barnhart, the No. 3 keeper last year, is Solo's backup. Scurry is one of four alternates selected by Sundhage.

Midfielder Lori Chalupny, a playmaking midfielder at the 2007 Women's World Cup, has been converted into an outside back, a position strengthened by the return of Heather Mitts from an ACL injury she suffered just two months before the World Cup, and the emergence of Stephanie Cox, who started every WWC match.

Half of the 18 players chosen by Sundhage brought home the gold medal in 2004, and once again the Americans will be dependent on returnees: Abby Wambach to score goals, Shannon Boxx to hold down the middle, Lindsay Tarpley to create and convert chances, and Christie Rampone to anchor the back line. Yet with a squad of just 18 playing matches every three days, and two of those slots taken by goalkeepers, every selection is critical. Nobody is going to Beijing just to soak up the atmosphere.

"We'll all potentially get some playing time and she does have a lot of confidence in us and the whole team in general," says Buehler, a tenacious tackler who played central defender and outside back at the 2002 and 2004 U-19 world championships.

"I don't know exactly why I'm here. I think I'm a good defender and a really hard worker, I'll play on the inside or the outside, really wherever. I'll just take the opportunity to do my very best, every time. I'm definitely known as a very hard defender, and tough. That's one of my attributes.

"As younger players, that gives us more confidence and the feeling that we are experienced. I feel a lot of great support from the older players, the coaches, from everyone."

BACK STORY. At the 2002 U-20 world championships, during which Buehler scored a goal and celebrated her 17th birthday, she played with current U.S. teammates Tarpley, Osborne, Chalupny and Heather O'Reilly. In the final, Tarpley stunned a crowd of more than 41,000 in Edmonton by scoring the game's only goal against host Canada in overtime.

Two years later, in the 2004 Olympic final, Tarpley -- at the time just 20 years old -- scored against Brazil and Wambach struck in overtime to win the gold medal. Buehler sees more than coincidence in Tarpley's progression. Youth competitions can't match the pressure and intensity of a World Cup or the Olympic Games, but they are stepping stones to the biggest events.

"Both of those tournaments were great preparation for what I'm doing now," she says. "It's not the same level, but you really are getting international experience. People are playing for their country and it's so meaningful, such an honor and such an awesome opportunity.

"I was very young for the first one and I barely made the team. I was kind of naïve. I still got to play a lot and contributed but in a different way from the second one, where I was a veteran player and had a lot more experience and took on more of a leadership role."

Heath, at 20 the youngest player on the Olympic roster, played in the U-20 world championships just two years ago in Russia, after which she stepped right into a battle for playing time for powerhouse North Carolina along with several other talented but raw freshmen. Three months after making her collegiate debut, she and the Tar Heels won the national title.

Like Buehler, she'd never played for the national team prior to Sundhage's hiring, but just kept reporting for camp after camp, tournament after tournament. She debuted as a sub against host China at the Four Nations Tournament Jan. 20; six weeks later, she scored her first international goal in a 4-0 defeat of China at the Algarve Cup in Portugal. Of the team's first 20 matches in 2008, she played in 13, usually on the left side of midfield, occasionally as a winger.

For the under-20s in Russia, she played outside back. Since bringing her up to the full international level, Sundhage has tempered her attacking inclinations with defensive tutelage. "Towards the beginning she told me to work on my defending," says Heath of Sundhage, who played 15 years for the Swedish national team. "She was very confident of my touches, but she wanted to see if I could put all of my enthusiasm attacking into defending as well. I love having the ball, and I love being in the attack, and I just need to switch and keep that focus when it comes to defending with that same energy."

The first time Rodriguez visited her parents after the Olympic announcement, they'd festooned the house with red, white and blue balloons to greet her. "I just kept hoping and didn't really know until a couple of weeks ago," she says. "It hasn't fully sunk in. Hearing from all my family and friends congratulating me, that's been very cool and allowed me to realize I really am going.

"I definitely like using my low center of gravity to turn and beat players. I use that as much as I can. A lot of time is spent on the soccer field but in addition to that we have to work out to keep our bodies strong and fit. We spend a lot of time in the gym working on strength and core and all those types of things.

"Dad gave me great thighs. He was an athlete, so I get a lot of my athleticism from him."

Heath first began to believe in April during the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in Mexico. The level of competition notwithstanding, she felt she'd achieved an important milestone, and also scored her second international goal against Jamaica.

"Because the Olympics are only one year after the World Cup, that's the only reason I would doubt I would even be considered," says Heath. "You'd think they'd stick with pretty much the same team.

"I've never felt overmatched. I'm a pretty competitive person. I love rising to the challenge and I love anything that pushes me. If anything, I was excited about it. I wasn't at any time fearful of anything. I was just grateful to have the opportunity to show myself."

Buehler has put off a decision about a career in medicine to see where soccer takes her. After graduating from Stanford in pre-med, she spent much of her scant free time studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a four-section, five-hour standardized exam for prospective medical-school attendees.

She took the test in her home city of San Diego a few days before rejoining the national team for its last two preparation friendlies against Brazil in mid-July.

"That was devouring my life for a while," says Buehler. "I started studying for it before all of this started happening. I pretty much went on every trip with every team to every tournament that I could. I didn't get burned out because I really do love the game but I also have a lot of other interests. Soccer isn't my life. I love it and put so much into it and I did take those opportunities, but it doesn't define me as a person entirely."

Still, the next few weeks may be fulfillment of a dream personified by a photo that Rodriguez hangs on the wall of her bedroom, an image of a magical moment she soon might live herself.

"It's from the 2004 Olympics," she says. "All the girls have the wreaths on their heads and they all have their arms around each other and wearing their gold medals standing on the podium. That gives me chills, because I could possibly be there. To even have the chance to do that, to maybe replicate what they did, is so amazing."

(This article appeared in the August 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)
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