WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Home is where the heart is.
For Pia Sundhage, that holds dual meaning on Friday.
Sundhage, now the coach of the Sweden’s women’s national soccer team, built the United States squad, which on Friday serves as her opponent in a pivotal second match at the 2015 World Cup.
In her pre-match press conference on Thursday, Sundhage spoke for 30 minutes and the overwhelming majority of it was about the Americans. Most coaches, as evidenced this week by cryptic answers across Canada, don’t want to discuss the opponent. They focus on their team.
Sundhage doesn’t mold herself to that sort of political correctness. She loves talking soccer and she REALLY loves talking about her time with the United States.
“The reason I’m sitting here is because the U.S. team. They made me look good,” Sundhage told a room filled to capacity with reporters.
Eighteen of the 23 U.S. players on the 2015 World Cup roster played at least one match for Sundhage when she was coach of the United States from 2008-12, most of them playing significant roles. Lauren Holiday, Tobin Heath and Amy Rodriguez all got their first crack at a major tournament under Sundhage.
“She really brings out the best in her players because she is so positive and so encouraging,” Heath said earlier in the week. “She really gives you that freedom to express yourself. I think a lot of us players learned that under Pia.”
The feelings are mutual, but they will be mixed on the field Friday. Sweden is one of the United States’ all-time rivals. The two countries have met in four straight World Cups and 35 times overall.
Sundhage’s move was something akin to winning a World Series with the Yankees and leaving in the offseason to take the job as Red Sox manager, Joachim Löw giving his World Cup trophy a goodbye kiss and taking the England job, or Mike Krzyzewski saying, “You know what? I think I’ll head down to the other side of Tobacco Road.”
This is Rick Pitino going back with Louisville to coach against Kentucky. It is Phil Jackson lining up the Lakers against his old Bulls.
Sundhage, who is from Sweden and spent nearly two decades playing for its national team, left the United States gracefully, to tears and songs and gifts. Her legacy was cemented as the woman who didn’t just lead a program but resurrected it.
The United States women’s national team, for all the history and prestige, was broken at the end of 2007. The squad imploded in the semifinals of that year’s World Cup during an embarrassing 4-0 loss to Brazil. Eventual five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta made U.S. defenders look like training cones.
And after things fell apart on the field, they quickly fell apart off of it – barely off of it, in the tunnel leading to the locker room.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo had played all four games prior to that awful semifinal, in which Briana Scurry let in the four goals. Greg Ryan, the team’s head coach, played Scurry, who was 36 years old, because he wanted to have experience in goal. Solo was rightfully pissed off, and she vented to a TV camera on the walk to the locker room after the loss.
“It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody who knows anything about the game knows that,” Solo said. “There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves, and the fact of the matter is, it’s not 2004 anymore. It’s not 2004 and it’s 2007. And I think you have to, you have to live in the present and you can’t live by big names. You can’t live in the past. It doesn’t matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold-medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters.”
Scurry and Ryan were thrown under the bus, and Solo famously was thrown off the team. The fine details of that are for another time and space.
But what it all meant is that Sundhage inherited a broken team at the start of 2008.
“I don’t expect them to forget what happened — and I got different kinds of stories of what happened — but I expect them to forgive,” Sundhage said in September 2012 upon announcing she would leave her post with the United States. “When I came, I said, ‘We need goalkeepers.’ So we had three goalkeepers. Then we said, ‘I want to win, do you want to win? Yes. Then you have to do this together. It will be impossible if you have something in the group that’s not 100 percent. You have to do it together and be respectful.’ We moved on.”
And the best way to move on was to sing. With a guitar in hand, Sundhage’s song of choice to introduce herself was Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.” Sundhage kept the mood light throughout her tenure with the United States by singing to the team. It was also a way for her to get her message across when she would struggle to find the right words in English.
U.S. defender Lori Chalupny remembers initially looking quizzically at Sundhage when the coach introduced herself through song in 2008, but admits that a tension was lifted. Chalupny played left fullback for the 2008 team that won Olympic gold under Sundhage, and Chalupny is back with the U.S. after a five-year hiatus due to concussion symptoms.
“Pia is very much a player’s coach,” Chalupny said. “She gives the players a lot of freedom on the field. I think that was kind of what we needed at the time. It kind of loosened things up and kind of loosened the reins a little bit and really let the players speak for themselves on the field.”
Recently, Sundhage has distanced herself from the U.S. She told me in an October 2014 interview that she had hardly watched the States play since leaving. And she reiterated throughout the spring that she didn’t know much about the U.S., even though in December, like magnets, they were drawn into the same World Cup group for the fourth consecutive edition of the tournament.
In reality, Sundhage knows everything about this United States team. She built this team and groomed many of its players.
So how do you prepare for a team whose players you know everything about?
And how do you prepare for a team whose coach knows everything about your players?
Those are the respective questions facing Sundhage and current U.S. coach Jill Ellis ahead of Friday’s match.
“For me, the approach is that we have to play to our strengths,” Ellis said. “We’ve got to focus on what we can do and what we’re good at. So it’s not really taking into consideration who is on the opposing bench. It really is about getting our players prepared in a good mindset, believing in what they’re doing, believing in the game plan, putting all the emphasis into that.”
Ellis was an assistant on Sundhage’s 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams. She says she learned patience among all else.
Lost in this feel-good story of Sundhage facing her old pals is that Sweden stumbled from the blocks in the Group of Death.
Sweden was downright awful against Nigeria in Monday’s 3-3 draw to open the tournament, blowing leads of 2-0 and 3-2, all while looking pedestrian in the attack and lethargic defensively. A loss to the Americans on Friday would put Sweden in legitimate danger of missing the knockout stage even with the prospect of three of the four teams getting out of the group. The Swedes drew Nigeria in their 2007 World Cup opener and missed the knockout stage.
So in that sense, Sundhage may need to play the role of savior again, this time for the Swedes. And it will ironically take an American mentality – digging deep and responding to adversity – to help Sweden get out of this group.
Do they need that bite?
“Yes,” Sundhage said, letting the one-word answer hang in the air.
Whether or not they have it remains to be seen.