Last night marked Pia Sundhage’s last match in charge of the USWNT- she will take over as her native Sweden’s national coach on December 1. The U.S. put a pretty good beating (6-2) on a game, but ultimately overmatched, Australian side in a match that was typical of many of the side’s matches during Sundhage’s tenure: the U.S. played like a team that wanted to win and to win with flair. A team that wasn’t afraid to give up a goal on the counter-attack because the had the belief that they could score two more to make up for it. A team that knew that it was fit, knew that it was prepared tactically, knew that it was gifted technically, and knew that with these factors in place they could play with abandon, with joy. This was fitting, as there was nobody who played or coached with more abandon or joy than their coach, Pia Sundhage.
Let’s get the “numbers” out of the way now, because Sundhage has never been about numbers. As player she is part of that select group that includes players like Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Birgit Prinz, Sun Wen, Homare Sawa, etc.- the best of the best. As a player for Sweden she had 71 goals in 148 matches over a career that lasted 21 years- starting at the age of 15! She played in two World Cups, an Olympics, and captained Sweden to a European Championship. As USWNT coach her teams won two Olympic Gold medals, were World Cup runners-up, and dominated the Algarve Cup (the most prestigious women’s competition after the Olympics and World Cup) for her entire five year reign as national team coach- three first, one second, and one third place finish. Her record with the national team was 90-6-10. And none of that is important.
What is important is the way she went about her business. She was not the soulless manager of a “soccer factory” that was Anson Dorrance. She was not the sourpuss wet blanket that was Tony DiCicco. She was not the somewhat uninspiring and underachieving caretaker that was April Heinrichs. She was not the barely-there “I benched Hope Solo” and we lost 4-0 to Brazil misfit that was Greg Ryan. No, Pia Sundhage was a little silly, a lot hyperactive, shockingly candid, and more than anything else, head-over-heels in love with the game of soccer. It showed in everything she said and did, and more importantly, it showed in the way her teams played…and succeeded.
And that’s just the thing, Sundhage’s was as successful or more successful than all of her predecessors even in the face of increasingly stiff competition (Did Anson Dorrance ever have to worry about playing France or Japan?), and she did it with joy. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing of the “soft touch” about Sundhage. She wouldn’t have achieved anything in her soccer life- as a player or coach- if she wasn’t intense, driven, and uncompromising. But Sundhage differed from those who came before her as she saw these things as a means to an end, and not as the end itself. She understood that the greatest thing a coach can do is to bring her players to a place where all they have to do on match day is play. And I do mean “play.”
If you need a concrete example of just how much Sundhage changed the culture of the USWNT you need only look to the aftermath of the London Olympics when Hope Solo- as prickly character and competitor as the national team has ever had- made a point of saying in every interview she gave (even those promoting her new biography) that it wasn’t until Sundhage took over the team that she felt as though it was truly a “team.” That’s pretty much on par with getting John McEnroe to say “the chair umpire and linesman did a great job today.”
I don’t know who will replace Sundhage as USWNT coach, but I doubt it will be anyone who has such an innate understanding of why it is called o jogo bonito.
Tack och lycka till, Pia.