Pia Sundhage: No Ordinary Coach

Pia Sundhage, a guitar-playing, folk song-singing Swede, guided the U.S. women to Olympic gold one year after their World Cup debacle. The feat came despite the absence of four key veterans and an opening-game loss in China.

Believe it or not, there still aren't a lot of women coaching women. Only two of the 12 teams in the 2008 Olympic women's soccer tournament were coached by women. One was Pia Sundhage, a former star of the Swedish national team who introduced herself to the U.S. women by singing Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing."

Sundhage took the helm in November 2007, less than two months after a disastrous World Cup performance and nine months before the Olympics. She explained why she sang to the team:

"This is not my native tongue. They were waiting for something special [and] I couldn't find the English words. So I sang."

By all accounts, jaws dropped, but who could argue against change?

The U.S. women had, by their standards, hit bottom at the 2007 World Cup. They were often outplayed, especially by the Brazilians, who thumped them, 4-0. Coach Greg Ryan had inexplicably decided to bench keeper Hope Solo in favor of a yesteryear hero, Briana Scurry. Solo had posted three straight shutouts.

Solo lashed out after the Brazil loss, Ryan kicked her off the team, and the Americans settled for third place. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati showed Ryan the door and hired Sundhage, the first foreign coach to head the American women.

Sundhage's image appears on a Swedish postage stamp, so appreciated were her feats as a player. That she had coached in the USA -- two years as an assistant coach and one year as head coach in the WUSA - assured her familiarity with the American player.

She pledged to change the U.S. playing style, which had devolved into a long-ball attack more befitting of underdogs than a world power.

"It hasn't been too much of a change and it hasn't been too little, either," Sundhage said on the eve of the Olympics.

Before the tournament, the team lost four veterans. Injured were defender Cat Whitehill, midfielder Leslie Osborne and Abby Wambach, the forward with the most impressive strike rate in U.S. history. Kristine Lilly was taking time off to start a family.

And in the opening game in China, the USA  fell, 2-0, to Norway. It was the first loss under Sundhage. Tony DiCicco, who coached the women to the 1996 Olympic gold and the 1999 Women's World Cup title, served as a TV commentator during the Olympics.

"I saw more confidence in the U.S. team after they lost to Norway than I did the previous year at the 2007 World Cup when they were winning all their early games," said DiCicco.

The U.S. women bounced back with a 1-0 win over Japan and a 4-0 win over New Zealand to reach the quarterfinals, where they triumphed over Canada, 2-1, in overtime on a Natasha Kai strike. Angela Hucles, who stayed on the bench at the 2007 World Cup, scored two of her tournament-leading four goals in a 4-2 win over Japan in the semifinals.

Awaiting the Americans in the final was Brazil, which had dismantled world champion Germany, 4-1, in the semis. The Brazilians dominated much as they had a year earlier in the World Cup clash, but this time there was a difference: Hope Solo. She would not be beaten and kept the USA in the game until Carli Lloyd blasted home the game's only goal in overtime.

Sundhage became the first U.S. coach since Anson Dorrance, who lifted the inaugural World Cup title in 1991, to win a world championship in the first try. And she had done so with a collection of players, such as Hucles, who previously played supporting roles.

Apparently, Sundhage hit the right notes.

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

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