U.S. Women: Pia Sundhage, The Agent of Change

Pia Sundhage, who led the U.S. women to the Olympic gold medal, has signed a new contract to coach the team through the next Olympics in 2012. The former Swedish international midfielder and WUSA coach arrived a little more than year ago talking about changing the women's game. It's a process that has just begun.

Q: You took over the team about nine months before the 2008 Olympics. How readily did the players accept you and your ideas?

A: I think first of all it helped me to be a foreign coach and it was brave of U.S. Soccer to hire me in an Olympic year. I was coming into the team and talking about change. They wanted a change and embraced that changing talk. From the very beginning they were, 'Let's go, let's do it, we want a change from 2007.' That helped me a lot.

Q: How much did coaching in the WUSA with Philadelphia and Boston help?

A: Coaching Kate [Markgraf] and [Kristine Lilly] and [Angela] Hucles helped me as well because they ex-pected positive things to happen. They didn't have to test me or find out who I was. Their feeling was, 'Let's do it together.' I felt that from the very beginning.

They appreciate that I'm a little bit different, a little bit crazy now and then. I wanted to wake them up, I wanted them to be on their toes, I didn't want them to take things for granted. Whatever happened with the team, I wanted them to be responsible for what they're doing and saying, and be proud of that.

Q: How does your experience in the Women's World Cup and Olympic Games as an international player for Sweden play into your coaching?

A: It helped that I had played at a high level. When times are hard, I know what it's like to be a center mid and we're dispossessed and how that feels. I also know exactly what the feeling is when you have been successful. So they bought into it when I showed them, and the whole coaching staff showed them, good things, things we went over again and again and talked about.

Q: One element of the U.S. game you wanted to improve was its ability to play the ball out of the back. How did you do this with more or less the same players?

A: We gave expectations to the backline to be good with the ball, not just me, but the whole coaching staff. I showed them with my body language. If you're first to the ball and you kick it out of bounds, honestly, I think that's bad. Why not take another step and play it back to the goalkeeper? Just keep it.

All of us were telling them they were good enough to do it. Look at Kate today. You wouldn't say now she's bad with the ball. She's pretty comfortable with the ball. It takes expectations, some guidelines, and you go from there.

Then the movement off the ball will be different because they expect Kate Markgraf to keep it. You start with circles and they get bigger and bigger.

Q: The injury to Abby Wambach right before the Olympics drew a lot of attention, and Hucles stepped up to score four goals in the tournament. Yet throughout the tournament midfielders Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx dominated the middle of the field and they seemed especially tough in the final against Brazil. How important was their play?

A: The center mids are the heart of the team. You are asking a lot of them. They are very important. It worked perfectly at the Olympics. They brought out the best in each other. If they like to play with each other, it will be even better.

I agree with you, they were very important in the Olympics and in that Brazilian game. If you listen to the Swedish commentary they were talking about how compact they were and what big hearts they had and how they were reading the game. They were talking about Boxx and Carli quite a bit.

It's important to have center mids regardless of the formation. You can play 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or 3-4-3, but if you want to keep possession, and if you want to get into that kind of space - we call it space two - it's important to have center players. If you have two or three it doesn't matter. They should be responsible for the rhythm of the game.

Q: In the final very rarely did Brazil penetrate with its trademark passing combinations or through balls. How did the U.S. take Brazil out of its attacking game?

A: The way we took care of Marta was to double her. You mentioned Carli and Boxx in middle; they were great, but it was a whole team effort. If you have a great attacking personality who gets a pass or takes a shot or whatever, it is hard, but if you have a great team defense, she gets frustrated and tries to do it on her own.

That was happening with Brazil. Cristiane and Marta, you look at them in the 70th minute, and you could see they were trying to do it on their own. When we had the extra time, we knew we had a team, we knew we could score, and [the Brazilians] were very disappointed that they didn't score the goals.

Q: Kristine Lilly took time off in 2008 to have a baby, and you lost Wambach, Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill to injuries during the year. What methods did you use to overcome those obstacles?

A: The bottom line is that the plan from the very beginning was to have a team. It's not about single players or the coach, but the team. When things happen you to try to adjust. I think we were very fortunate that all the hard work we had put in from the start of the year paid off at the Olympics.

Q: Aside from the team training sessions and pre-game talks, how do you manage the players day-to-day?

A: I don't have individual talks. Usually I take two or three players, because I want them to coach each other. Like with Carli and Boxx, it worked perfectly at the Olympics. They brought out the best in each other. If they like to play with each other, it will be even better.

Q: Is there a set formula to picking which players to group together for these discussions?

A: I come up with different combinations. If you have Heather Mitts and Heather O'Reilly on the right side, they have to play off each other. If Heather O'Reilly is too high, it will be impossible for Heather Mitts to overlap. How can they help each other?

That's something I look to do even more of this coming year. That's the key. I'm not playing and hopefully they coach each other. There's no need for me to go through every single player. I just start the discussion pretty much.

Q: With a new four-year contract that extends through the 2012 Olympics, you'll have a lot of time to im-plement changes. What do you have in mind?

A: We talk about keeping possession. I think we need to change the style of the U.S. team a little bit, to keep the ball more and find a rhythm. [Coach] Tony DiCicco with the under-20s is screaming at the players to keep the ball, keep possession.

The crucial part of that is to receive the ball and actually keep it under pressure. You must do that to be ef-fective. When you have a World Cup for the under-17s, you have a lot of players at a high level. I think that will change the attacking style tremendously in the next six or seven years.

Q: FIFA introduced an U-17 World Cup for female players in 2008, in which the U.S. finished second to North Korea. How will this competition at a younger age level affect the women's game?

A: If you look at the U-17 players, there are some of them who are more technical, at times, compared to the U-20s. If you compete with the U-17s, you need to start the programs a little earlier and improve their technique when they are younger. The earlier you do that, the better it is.

That is an area that for the U.S. team, regardless of age, we need to improve, and especially with receiving the ball. I want to emphasize that aspect of our technique. I think that is important.

Q: With DiCicco coaching them, the U.S. under-20 women won the world championship in November. What are your impressions of that team and what it accomplished?

A: Defensively, we were great, very compact. The gold medal is great for the winning culture, which I think is important for the Americans as compared to all the other teams. The Germans have a little bit of it as well, a winning culture. They have high expectations.

Having said that, I come back to technique and that's something we will have to work on a lot. There are a couple of good players and the important thing when it comes to attacking is to vary the game.

Q: Which U-20 players caught your eye?

A: Alex Morgan played very well and she is definitely special. She was taking people on over and over again, which is fantastic. Now I don't think that's enough at the highest level. To improve her game, she needs to get more qualities, and if she does, she'll be playing many, many games in the national team.

The goalkeeper [Alyssa Naeher] had a great tournament. That's another player for the full team as well.

If you look at technique, you have a leader in [Keelin] Winters. Tony speaks very highly of her, and that's another quality - which is important to be successful.

Also I liked Christine Nairn. She's young, born in '90. If she continues likes this and varies her attack, she seems to be very comfortable on the ball and with her technique, can be a very good player.

Q: With Tony on board to coach in the new women's league, do you have a strong feeling about who the next under-20 U.S. women's coach will be?

A: Right now, no. That's something we'll talk with U.S. Soccer about. I don't know that many coaches in this country. If you want change in this country and not play the kick-and-run game, you need to talk about attacking, finding the rhythm and keeping possession. You need to find the coaches who can emphasize this as well.

Q: How will the new league, Women's Professional Soccer, compare with WUSA?

A: If you look at WUSA, the first year, if we're talking about quality, I think it was a little bit crazy. I was in Philly and I remember it was hard to blend the American style with the foreign players. It took a while, but I have to say in 2003, when I was with Boston Breakers, I thought the quality was very good.

They were not on the same page at first. This might happen here again in the first year, but at the end of the day, this is about the league. The quality will be so much better in a couple of years.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)  

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