Homeward bound: Pia Sundhage prepares for her curtain call with the USWNT

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After rife speculation, Sundhage’s exit from the USWNT is official. We salute the coach who sang and strummed her way into the hearts of players and fans alike.

Call it the first verse of Pia Sundhage’s swan song. The USWNT’s 8-0 pummeling of Costa Rica in the first match of its Victory Tour came hours after Sundhage’s broke the news of her impending departure. The Swedish native is reportedly set to leave the team after its two upcoming friendlies against Australia this month. Her destination is now clear as the Swedish FA just confirmed her appointment as head coach of the Women’s National Team.

Sundhage’s tenure of success with the USWNT is unimpeachable: two Olympic gold medals, one World Cup runners-up finish, and an imperious 88-6-10 record. The one-time goal-scoring great duly delivered on the promise to return the side to winning ways. And she did it in a way that is unmistakably Pia.

 

A player’s coach. What’s Pia’s most impressive accomplishment aside from the silverware and all-time best win percentage? Her ability to build team cohesion and foster a winning mentality is self-evident. Consider the state of the Women’s National Team when Pia first assumed the position in late 2007. The U.S. had suffered its earliest exit in World Cup history and the side was embroiled in the Greg Ryan/Hope Solo ‘I would have made those saves’ fiasco. U.S. Soccer sought a candidate who could reunite a divided camp and return the side to its former preeminent status. Sundhage has done a masterful job on both accounts. Additionally, the USWNT hasn’t enjoyed this current level of celebrity in nearly a decade. Sundhage has succeeded in forbidding newfound fame and notably strong personalities from unsettling team chemistry.

 

Does this mean a changing of the guard is on the horizon? Sundhage has developed several trademarks during her tenure with the USWNT. There are her guileless goal celebrations and her blasé, nonchalant demeanor. Her fierce loyalty to players is another well-known characteristic. Barring injury or retirement, established stars Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe will likely keep their starting berths for years to come. Can the same be said for others? Carli Lloyd, Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet, Shannon Boxx – and to a lessening extent – Amy Rodriguez were staples throughout the Sundhage regime. All five players have struggled through bouts of less-than-stellar form over the past three years, although Lloyd and LePeilbet had particularly impressive Olympic tournaments. Will Sundhage’s darlings still be considered first choice or will they be forced to make way for the next generation?

 

What awaits back home. Sundhage is a living legend in the world of Swedish women’s soccer. She made her name as a prolific goal-scorer for the Swedish Women’s National Team when the international women’s game was beginning to take flight in the late 1970s. The 52-year-old has made noises about wanting to return to her native country, which adds a sense of inevitability to today’s news. Thomas Dennerby did a serviceable job with the program in his seven years as head coach. Sweden were third place finishers at the World Cup last summer and bowed out in the quarterfinal round of the Olympics in August. Sundhage will inherit a side that has long strived to break into the upper echelon of world powers comprised of the U.S., Japan, and Germany. Their first major test arrives next summer as Sweden hosts Euro 2013. Sweden haven’t won a European Championship since the first official edition in19’84. The tournament’s leading goal scorer? Pia Sundhage.

 

Did Sundhage’s team rack up style points? And does it matter? Sundhage’s glittering record of success should speak for itself. There is perhaps one quibble with Sundhage’s legacy, though, and that’s the team’s style of play. Under Sundhage the USWNT weren’t exactly paragons of forward-thinking, sleek, stylish soccer. Unbalanced midfield play and a shoddy defense contributed to mediocre performances and near defeats. The reliance on athleticism and supreme fitness (plus Abby Wambach’s head) worked to a point, but a change was in order. Following the 2011 World Cup, Sundhage endeavored to transform the USWNT into a more possession-oriented side, perhaps in response to the thrilling style in which surprise packages Japan won the tournament. The team fiddled with a varied diamond midfield formation and later a more explosive 4-3-3. The tactical rejiggering has since resulted in more cohesive and urgent – if not always composed – play. Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe are all in unstoppable form which one could argue is a byproduct of Sundhage’s fresh emphasis on scoring endless goals and doing so in style. The revolution has been successful up to now, but one gets the feeling it’s still in progress.

 

So, who’s next in line? Let the speculation begin. The heir to Sundhage’s role is set to wrest control of one of the most successful – and yes – glamorous women’s soccer team in all the land. There’s reason to believe U.S. Soccer will stay in-house when searching for a replacement. Jill Ellis appears to top the shortlist of possible candidates. The former UCLA head coach is currently in charge of the program’s youth teams. The U.S. U-20’s have partially recovered from a bitterly disappointing 2010 tournament and will meet Nigeria in the semifinals of the 2012 U-20 World Cup on Tuesday. Other names? Women’s Professional Soccer helped launch the careers of Aaran Lines and Paul Riley. Australian Women’s National Team coach Tom Sermanni could also be in consideration.

 

There are merely two matches remaining before the end of a noteworthy era. Sundhage undeniably leaves the USWNT better than she found it. Job well done, Pia.

 

How about an encore performance? Let’s recall one of the fondest Pia memories.