Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Fitting Farewell

Pia Sundhage's final match as the U.S. Women's soccer coach had all the right elements to encapsulate her nearly five years in charge. An early deficit, some dodgy defending, lots of goals, and in the end, a victory as the Americans beat Australia 6-2.

It's easy to forget that when Sundhage took over the team it was in complete disarray. The women had finished third in the World Cup in 2007, a result with which most countries (Canada comes to mind) would be ecstatic, but which was disappointing for the Americans in part because it constituted the second straight World Cup that they had failed to win, but mostly because of the way it had happened.

Then-coach Greg Ryan benched keeper Hope Solo in favor of long-time starter Brianna Scurry for the semi-final match against Brazil, which the U.S. promptly and embarrassingly lost 4-0. After the game, Solo publicly blasted Ryan for the decision (where have we heard that since?), splitting the team into two camps.

Alex Morgan, one of the fast, skilled young players
that Sundhage included in the U.S. Women's National team.

While the team regrouped to defeat Norway in the consolation game, the damage had been done. Ryan was dismissed and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati eventually named Sundhage, the first non-American to hold the job, in his place.

Nine months later, the U.S. Women won the Gold Medal at the Beijing Olympics. Sundhage found a winning formula, based primarily on Abby Wambach and Solo, and stuck with it.

While the play wasn't always pretty, and there were some rough stretches (particularly during World Cup qualifying, when the U.S. lost to Mexico and had to defeat Italy in home-and-home matches to squeak into the Finals) the team began to play exciting, attractive soccer. Sure, there were more bumps along the way - especially the World Cup Final against Japan when the Americans twice surrendered leads and their slow defenders (yes, Hope, slow defenders) were exposed.

But two matches in particular, the World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil in 2011 and the Olympic semifinal against Canada this summer, were two of the most compelling soccer matches, men's or women's, I've ever watched. And Sundhage should also be credited for bringing youth into the team, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux being the best examples of quality players who blossomed under Sundhage's leadership.

Perhaps most importantly, Sundhage clearly enjoys coaching and imparts that joy to her players. Undoubtedly she worked them hard. But she has a whimsical side that occasionally causes her to dance or break into song.

Whoever replaces Sundhage will have big shoes to fill, and will inherit a team with high expectations for the next World Cup, to be held in Canada in 2015. He or she may well bring the Cup back across the border. But I doubt that whoever it is will do so with as much panache as Sundhage brought to our team.

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