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For Pia Sundhage, another pressure-filled moment

The U.S. coach, a soccer icon, and her team face a crucial test in the Women's World Cup against Brazil.

July 07, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Coach Pia Sundhage watches the U.S. prepare to play Sweden in their final first-round game on Wednesday.
Coach Pia Sundhage watches the U.S. prepare to play Sweden in their final… (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated…)

She strums happily on a guitar and belts out Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Simon & Garfunkel hits. Pia Sundhage, the coach of the U.S. women's soccer team, is 51, so she is entitled to reach back in time, musically speaking.

She ranks as one of the greatest women's soccer players of all time and was voted sixth on a FIFA list of the 20th century's top female stars. She won a European championship as a player, an Olympic gold medal as the U.S. coach, and she is famous enough to have been featured on a Swedish postage stamp.

She is intelligent, lively, humorous, optimistic, determined and, above all, successful. If that success continues at the 2011 Women's World Cup, now in its knockout stage in Germany, she could be around for quite a lot longer as U.S. women's national team coach.

The American players have nothing but admiration for the woman from the small southern Swedish town of Ulricehamn.

"Pia's a great teacher," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said recently.

"She's had a great career and she's given us a more global, more international perspective on the game. In the U.S., we're physically very strong, but she's made a huge contribution from a technical point of view and in terms of helping us to really understand football.

"She's doing a great job toward making us the best team in the world once more."

If Sundhage can get the U.S. past Brazil in a quarterfinal Sunday in Dresden, few are likely to argue against Wambach's view. But if she fails, Sundhage could soon be standing in the unemployment line, a fate that could also await Bob Bradley, the coach of the U.S. men's soccer team.

So where did it all begin? What put this Swedish icon on course to lead the American charge?

It is quite possible that the time and place can be pinpointed with some accuracy — the exact moment when Sundhage realized that it would be a pretty smart career move to one day become coach of the U.S. women.

The time would have been the evening of Nov. 17, 1991. The place would have been Yingdong Stadium in the Chinese city of Panyu.

On that night, the U.S. was playing Sweden in the first round of the inaugural Women's World Cup. Sundhage, then 31, was a veteran midfielder, appearing in one of the 146 games she played for Sweden during 22 years on the national team.

The Americans were the darlings of the tournament, and they had a 3-0 lead before the Swedes awoke. The game ended 3-2 in favor of the U.S., which went on to win the world championship. Sweden finished third.

But the way the U.S. played, the team's depth of talent and its commitment to free-flowing attacking soccer made an impression on Sundhage.

An attack-minded player herself, she scored 71 goals for Sweden before retiring after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where the U.S. defeated Sweden en route to winning the first women's soccer gold medal, thereby reinforcing Sundhage's positive view of the American program.

Eleven years later, the U.S. team was hers.

"Pia is a highly accomplished player and coach with the vision to guide our women's national team into this next phase," Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, said in naming her as national team coach.

"She brings a fresh perspective and a tremendous amount of experience to the job. She knows the international game and has a great track record of not only winning, but getting the most out of players and teams."

That was in November 2007, not long after the U.S., under then-coach Greg Ryan, had come unstuck in China, losing, 4-0, to Brazil in the semifinals of the fifth Women's World Cup.

Now the soccer ball has come full circle.

On Sunday, the U.S. will again line up against the Brazilians, this time in the Women's World Cup quarterfinals.

The pressure is on Sundhage and her players. The U.S. women have never finished lower than third in a world championship and are coming off a 2-1 loss to Sweden on Wednesday.

"It will be inspiring to play against Brazil," Sundhage said after that defeat. "What we will talk about from now on is playing in the final. In order to play in the final, we need to step up and be sharper with our chances. We start with Brazil."

The American players believe in her. It was Sundhage who led them to the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the Brazilians were beaten, 1-0, in the final on Carli Lloyd's overtime goal.

Sundhage and her players would happily settle for a similar outcome Sunday.

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