Head coach Pia Sundhage looks on before the gold medal match against Japan. (Julian Finney / Getty Images )
LONDON — The U.S. women's soccer team sang and danced and partied deep into the morning after winning its third consecutive Olympic gold medal Thursday. But when the players awoke Friday, a hangover may have been the least of their problems.
After its 2-1 victory over Japan, the national team now finds itself confronted with a number of issues that could stall its development. The contract between U.S. Soccer and the players association expires at the end of the year, for example, as does the contract of U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage. There is no top-tier domestic league for the women to play in following the collapse of Women's Professional Soccer last winter. And there isn't another major international event for women until the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
For Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the most pressing item on that to-do list is finding a place for the players to play over the next two years.
"A number of players, after the Olympics are over with, will have to make some decisions," he said. "Many, if not most, would like to stay in the U.S. Whether that's in a U.S.-sponsored and sanctioned residency program, whether that's in a league that would be appropriate for them, that remains to be seen.
"In the long term, you'd like to see more players playing at a high level. And that can only be done if you've got a league."
Yet that's been tried several times without success. And it looks like it will be tried again, with a group of owners from the failed WPS announcing Thursday they plan to launch an eight-team league that will begin play next spring.
Gulati has talked with that group and has also been in discussions with teams in the United Soccer Leagues and Women's Premier Soccer League — two active semipro organizations — about finding a sustainable blueprint for going forward.
"Look, it's pretty simple," said Gulati, a lecturer in economics at Columbia. "An economic model of the sort that we've had the last rounds hasn't worked. So it's going to have to be, in my view, a different economic model that people are not only willing to start but they're willing to stick with for long periods of time."
As for the future of Sundhage, the second-winningest coach in U.S. national team history, neither she nor Gulati sound particularly hopeful.
"Being coach for the USA women's football team is the best job in the world right now," Sundhage said Thursday.
But she avoided a direct answer when asked if she'd be back.
"That's hard," she said. "This team has made me successful; they made me look good. And I am grateful for that."
Sundhage has had the job five years, though. So even after coaching the team to the final of three major tournaments, winning two Olympic gold medals and narrowly missing a World Cup title, Gulati said it may be time for a change.
"Pia's had a great run with the team," he said. "But that's not the only piece of it. We've had situations where coaches have done very well and they want to move on. Or the program decides we're going in a different direction.
"Four years is kind of enough of one voice. Even if you've been successful maybe it's time for another voice."
There are a number of American players who may not be back either. Defender Heather Mitts, 34 and a three-time Olympic champion, announced her retirement Friday while captain Christie Rampone, a 37-year-old mother of two and the only American to have played in four Olympics and four World Cups, has talked of stepping aside as well. Then there's midfielder Shannon Boxx, whose playing time in these Olympics was limited by injury. She will be 38 before the next World Cup.
But all those decisions are likely to wait until after U.S. Soccer mines a little more green out of the team's gold with a national Victory Tour, beginning Sept. 1 in Rochester, N.Y., with a friendly against Costa Rica. The team will play Australia at the Home Depot Center on Sept. 16 and could play as many as eight other exhibitions before the end of the year.