Assessing Pia Sundhage

Pia Sundhage, the coach of the US Women’s National Team, announced today that she is stepping down.  Then it was announced that she would take over as head coach of Sweden’s Women’s National Team where she was once a star player.  This is not exactly a surprise; it has long been known that Sundhage wanted to return to her native Sweden to coach.  That she waited until the end of her contract–that she was successful enough to be able to wait until the end of her contract–makes her departure nice and neat.  Sundhage was able to leave on her own terms, and as a winner with an 89-6-10 record, a World Cup silver medal, and two Olympics gold medals.  The US is firmly fixed atop the FIFA world rankings, and no one argues that this is a suspect position.  Sundhage has done a terrific job, and to my mind her success is at least equal to that of Anson Dorrance or Tony DiCicco, despite not having won the World Cup.  What must be recognized about Sundhage’s tenure is that the US was the most successful team of the last five years even though the world has caught up and in some respects surpassed the US.  We are a long way from the days in which only Norway could rival the US.

Coaching of the USWNT may not be not as stressful as coaching of the Brazil men’s team (with its 200 million critics), but the USWNT job comes with equally high expectations.  A victim of its own success, a USWNT that posts any result less than total victory is considered a failure; each team lives in the shadow of 1999.  And the coach is always the first to get blamed. Despite her success, Sundhage has not had the smoothest of tenures, and no doubt there were times that US Soccer was close to giving her the axe.  Had she not previously coached the USWNT to gold at the 2008 Olympics (beating Brazil), it is quite possible that she might have lost her job in 2010.  The US lost the Gold Cup that year for the first time (a shocking semifinal defeat to Mexico), and barely qualified for the World Cup as a result.

Sundhage’s tactical and personnel decisions were often called into question, really until after her team won its second consecutive Olympic gold.  In fairness, there is a truth to this second guessing.  While the rest of the world was inspired by the technical superiority of Spain and Barcelona, the US stubbornly clung to the same power game that it played two decades ago.  The US players do not lack technical ability or creativity (think Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan), but Sundhage, who was practically wedded to a 4-4-2 formation, clearly felt more akin to the English kick-and-run, bully style than the more aesthetically pleasing Spanish one.

Sundhage’s team selections were often times equally frustrating.  New talent was hard to break in; Sundhage stood by the same players throughout her tenure.  Now the old guard–Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone–are on the verge of retirement and whoever comes next has a lot to do.  We all have our favorites who were left out (Yael Averbuch is mine), and angry fans called for Sundhage’s head when certain players started.  Amy Rodriguez came in for particularly rough (and often unfair) criticism.

On the other hand, no one can fault the way Sundhage (wo)man-managed her players.  She was famously mellow and every more famously sung and played guitar.  Sundhage got the best out of players, sometimes by leaving them out of the starting lineup.  During the World Cup both Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan began as substitutes, and after amazing performances, both assured their starting places in the Olympics.  After the World Cup, Carli Lloyd lost her starting place (an injury to Boxx brought her back to the starting XI in the Olympics), and Lloyd scored both goals in the gold medal victory over Japan.   And most importantly, when Mount St. Solo inevitably erupted, Sundhage managed to keep the team intact.

There are two types of legacies, one is the deeds performed during one’s tenure, and the other, far rarer, is what has been set up for the future.  Very few coaches are future thinkers, especially at the international level–Rinus Michels certainly, Luis Aragones arguably, Pia Sundhage not at all.  Sundhage’s successor will need to majorly restructure the team lest the 2012 gold medal be the last hurrah.  The US is the last vestige of an Ancien Régime that has been otherwise supplanted.  Despite the fact that players like Morgan, Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, and Sydney Leroux have all become fixtures during Sundhage’s watch, one would hardly call her a visionary.

But for deeds performed, Sundhage’s wild success is undeniable.  Beyond her tournament victories though, Sundhage greatest legacy may be the one that she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for.  From 1999 until 2008, the USWNT program had been regressing, hit by one loss after another: (1) the retirement of Michelle Akers; (2) the loss of the Olympic gold in 2000; (3) 3rd place at the 2003 World Cup; (4) the end of the WUSA; (5) the retirement of Mia Hamm and the core of the 1999 team; (6) the controversial tenure of April Heinrichs; and finally (7) the humiliation to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup.  The only bright spot was the 2004 Olympic, and even then the US was lucky to have won.  Sundhage took a team on a nearly decade-long decline back to the top of the world.

Thank you, Pia Sundhage, and good luck to you and Sweden at next year’s Euro.

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