Sund­hage’s mark will be on matchup

The coach will face her for­mer team when Swe­den takes on the U.S. in group play.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter

WIN­NIPEG, Canada — Pia Sund­hage is sup­posed to be living a dream.

She’s coach­ing the na­tional team she once played for in the na­tion where she grew up. She has Swe­den ranked fifth in the world and com­pet­ing for a World Cup ti­tle.

But on Thurs­day af­ter­noon she sounded more wist­ful than won­der-struck. In a lit­tle more than 24 hours her new team would meet her old one, the United States, in the sec­ond game of group play at the women’s World Cup. But if you closed your eyes as she spoke and fo­cused on the words and not the speaker, it was hard to tell which team she was with.

Three times she called the U.S. the best team in the world. Her fa­vorite play­ers, she said, were Abby Wam­bach and Carli Lloyd — yep, both Amer­i­cans.

And the rea­son Sund­hage was here in Win­nipeg, wear­ing a Swedish team shirt at a news con­fer­ence dur­ing the World Cup, was “be­cause of the U.S. team,”

she said. “They made me look good.”

Re­turn­ing to Swe­den, then, may have taught her the ar­ti­fi­cial grass isn’t al­ways greener on the other side.

With the U.S., she lost just six of 107 games in five years. With Swe­den, she’s al­ready lost 10 times in 36 games.

With the U.S. she won two Olympic gold medals and pushed Ja­pan to penalty kicks in the 2011 World Cup fi­nal. With Swe­den, she’s done no bet­ter than the semi­fi­nals of the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships and three straight fourth-place fin­ishes in the Al­garve Cup.

With the U.S. her quirky be­hav­ior — Sund­hage pulled out a gui­tar and sang to her play­ers in her first and last meet­ings as coach — was em­braced as weirdly en­dear­ing. With Swe­den it was just con­sid­ered weird, the play­ers greet­ing Sund­hage’s first solo with si­lence and blank stares.

Although the free-spir­ited Sund­hage came from Swe­den, it’s clear her re­turn there hasn’t gone as smoothly as she had hoped. So when her con­tract runs out in 2016, she said, she “most likely ... will do some­thing else.”

But first comes Fri­day, with Swe­den need­ing at least a draw to im­prove its chances of ad­vanc­ing to the knock­out round while a U.S. win would as­sure the Amer­i­cans move on. And Sund­hage, 55, will have played a ma­jor role in the out­come no mat­ter how the game ends.

Eigh­teen of the 23 play­ers on the U.S. team played for Sund­hage and eight of them — in­clud­ing Alex Mor­gan and Syd­ney Ler­oux — got their na­tional team starts un­der her. Even U.S. Coach Jill El­lis was pro­moted to the se­nior team un­der Sund­hage, who named her an as­sis­tant coach in 2008, less than two months af­ter tak­ing the job.

The two have since be­come close with El­lis cred­it­ing Sund­hage for help­ing take some of the anx­ious edges off her coach­ing style.

“Pa­tience is one of the things I took away from her,” El­lis said of Sund­hage, whom she de­scribed as the kind of friend you’d like to have a beer with.

“At times Pia would just sit back and let them play. And her out­look is re­ally good, re­ally pos­i­tive. Al­ways the glass is half full.”

That ap­proach made Sund­hage popular with the play­ers as well.

“She has a re­ally unique coach­ing style,” said mid­fielder Tobin Heath, named to the U.S. na­tional team by Sund­hage in 2008. “She re­ally brings the best out in play­ers be­cause she’s so pos­i­tive and en­cour­ag­ing. A lot of play­ers learned that un­der Pia and have taken that into this new step in our jour­ney.”

That’s be­cause Sund­hage, in many ways, is just like the women she coached: tal­ented, con­fi­dent and pos­sessed of more than a lit­tle swag­ger.

Be­fore em­bark­ing on a coach­ing ca­reer that would take her to four coun­tries and three World Cups, Sund­hage played for six clubs dur­ing an 18-year ca­reer. In­ter­na­tion­ally, she scored a Swedish-record 71 goals while play­ing in 146 games — and ap­peared on one postage stamp.

Sund­hage fin­ished sixth in vot­ing for FIFA’s women’s player of the cen­tury.

Yet for all those ac­com­plish­ments, what the U.S. play­ers re­mem­ber most about Sund­hage is her big laugh and the way she could sweat the small stuff while let­ting big things go.

“I loved my time with her,” Heath said. “She re­ally gives you that free­dom to ex­press your­self.”

The play­ers weren’t as en­am­ored with Sund­hage when she ex­pressed her­self in the New York Times, though. In an April in­ter­view Sund­hage, who has al­ways spo­ken her mind, said Lloyd had ma­jor strug­gles with her con­fi­dence, called Hope Solo one of the most chal­leng­ing play­ers she has ever coached and said Wam­bach, at 35, was a part-time player.

None of that was new — or even par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial. But it struck some as taunt­ing on the eve of a big game. So af­ter re­mind­ing ev­ery­one that the de­ci­sion to print an April in­ter­view in June was made not by her but by the New York Times, Sund­hage launched into a four-minute clar­i­fi­ca­tion in which she re­peated her re­spect for Lloyd and Wam­bach while call­ing Solo both “the best goal­keeper in the world” and “a piece of work.”

How­ever the words were in­tended, U.S. de­fender Lori Chalupny said they aren’t likely to af­fect the way her team­mates ap­proach Fri­day’s game.

“When you’re in a World Cup, there’s no ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion needed,” she said.

The same may be true of coaches. For Sund­hage, af­ter all, Fri­day’s game is some­thing of a dream matchup: on one side is a dream that worked out, on the other a dream she’s still try­ing to sal­vage.

“If you be­lieve in some­thing, it might come true,” Sund­hage said hope­fully. “And I ex­pe­ri­enced that with the U.S. team.”

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