Singing Her Way Toward Exit, Sundhage Steps Down as U.S. Coach
By JIM MEMMOTT
Published: September 1, 2012
ROCHESTER — Before the first game of a victory tour by the gold-medal-winning United States women’s soccer team, Coach Pia Sundhage decided it was time to go home to Sweden.
And typically, she helped spread the news her way, breaking into song after her resignation was announced to a capacity crowd here for a game against Costa Rica.
Taking a microphone, Sundhage turned to the fans and belted out a few lines of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” her way of thanking the crowd and saying goodbye.
After the game, in which the United States beat the overmatched Costa Rica national team, 8-0, Sundhage said that she had “mixed feelings” but that the timing was right for her to move on.
The head coaching position for the Swedish national team is about to be vacant, and the job is hers. The Swedish soccer association announced on its Web site Saturday that she would start in the post Dec. 1.
Sweden will host next summer’s European women’s championship.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for me,” said Sundhage, a former star player on her country’s national team. “It’s just good timing.”
Sundhage, 52, will stay on for the next two games of what is expected to be a 10-game exhibition series for the United States.
Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, said that a search would begin soon for Sundhage’s successor. He declined to name possible candidates.
He did say that, in addition to the work with the women’s national team, the new coach’s role could involve more work with U.S. Soccer’s youth national teams.
“We want someone who can get the most out of this group and develop the next group,” Gulati said.
Sundhage, who previously coached the Boston Breakers in the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association, was named the coach of the United States in November 2007. Since then, she has compiled a record of 89 wins, 6 loses and 10 draws.
In addition to the gold medal the Americans won at the London Olympics last month, the women won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and lost in the final of the 2011 World Cup in a shootout against Japan, the team they defeated, 2-1, in the Olympic final last month.
“She compiled a terrific track record of success,” Gulati said.
Gulati met with Sundhage on Saturday morning and learned of her decision. He said that he was not surprised. They had talked earlier in the week, he said, about her interest in returning to Sweden.
“She’s an icon there,” he said.
Sundhage inherited an American team in what Gulati called a “short-term crisis” after a 4-0 loss to Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup.
The coach at the time, Greg Ryan, came under heavy criticism for his decision not to start goalkeeper Hope Solo in that game, and he was let go soon after the tournament.
Gulati said Sundhage “stabilized the situation.”
Sundhage came into the job wanting to improve the technical side of the team’s game, instilling a better sense of team play and positioning.
“It was a struggle in the beginning,” said the team captain Christie Rampone, a veteran of four Olympics. “But we put our faith in her, and that first year yielded us a gold medal. From that point on, we knew we had to listen to her.”
Rampone said that she and the other players had not known of Sundhage’s decision until the team met on Saturday morning.
“We will definitely miss her,” Rampone said. “But I know she’s done everything she can here.”
Abby Wambach, another veteran and a Rochester-area native, echoed Rampone.
“We’re all sad,” Wambach said. “We like Pia, and she’s obviously done so much for our team and this game.”
Wambach is royalty in Rochester, having grown up in the suburb of Pittsford and starring along the way in youth and high school soccer.
Large crowds have come to see her every time a team she has played in Rochester.
The crowd erupted in cheers when she scored the first of her two goals on a header in the 24th minute.
By her own admission not entirely match-fit, Wambach came out of the game after 70 minutes to another ovation from the 13,208 fans at Sahlen’s Stadium.
Megan Rapinoe also had two goals and an assist.
Sundhage was upbeat after the win, signing autographs and waving to fans.
She said that she chose to sing to the crowd before the game because English is not her native language and it felt more natural for her to turn to music.
“That’s more me than to try and explain in smart words,” she said.