Aug. 20, 2008
By Michael Lewis/Br>BigAppleSoccer.com Editor
THE PIA FACTOR
Sundhage is the living essence of the power of positive thinking
Beijing, China -- During interviews and press conferences, Pia Sundhage likes to remind the media that she is a "glass half full person."
|Pia Sundhage could become the first foreigner to direct a team to a major FIFA championship if the U.S. earns the Olympic gold medal.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
If that makes her forever the optimistic coach, so be it.
It's part of her fabric and a reason why the U.S. women are a win away from another Olympic soccer gold medal.
When she took over the U.S. Women's National Team last November, Sundhage faced a tall task -- transform the team that finished a disappointing third in the Women's World Cup in China and turn it into champions again.
For virtually the rest of the world, third place in any major FIFA competition is quite an accomplishment. For the Americans, it was considered failure. Add the Hope Solo controversy and that soccer wasn't always necessarily fun for the team and Sundhage certainly had her work cut out for her.
On Thursday, Sundhage will direct the Americans in their quest for a third gold medal in four tries (the only time the U.S. stumbled was a 3-2 extra-time loss to Norway in 2000). Brazil, the team's latest archrival and nemesis rolled into one, is the opponent at Workers Stadium at 9 p.m. local time (USA Network, NBC Olympic Soccer Channel, 9 a.m. ET).
She also finds herself on the verge of making personal history. No foreigner has directed a women's National Team to a WWC championship or an Olympic gold medal.
While it might sound a bit cliched, Sundhage has embraced the power of positive thinking. Moreover, the team has bought into that concept and quite literally and figuratively, has run with it.
"She has such an enthusiasm and love of the game of soccer," said forward Angela Hucles, adding that Sundhage was "so passionate for the game. You can tell. That is just infectious. We've all picked that up, loving playing soccer for her and for our country."
Added Heather O'Reilly: "She's very optimistic. She looks at everything as a positive. Always looks at a glass half full, always having a smile."
When leading-scorer Abby Wambach (99 international goals) went down with her broken leg, Sundhage mourned and "grieved" the loss for a short period of time, but her pragmatic side allowed had her move on. Instead, she worked with the team and devised a way to get more goals from other places and get the most out of her team.
"I feel sorry for Abby," Sundhage said days prior to the tournament's kickoff. "We have to move on. The team is strong. I think everybody will step up a little bit. That counts for the coaching staff and also for the players. . . . I think it would be foolish not to recognize that she is gone. That would be almost a lie. On the other hand, we cannot put too much emphasis on Abby because she is a star."
Sundhage (pronounced Soond-hahg-Eh) realized she did not have much time to devise a new strategy. "You don't get a chance to think that much," she said. "So you have to adjust the game that much, so you have to think right now, right here. My glass is half full. We need to adjust in the short amount of time. I have confidence we can do that."
Sundhage's most important decision was moving Hucles, who played mostly at midfielder, into the forward slot. Hucles was a player Sundhage had traded away when both were with the Boston Breakers in the defunct Women's United Soccer Association in 2003. When Hucles went to Sundhage's first training camp last December , the coach did not have the heart to cut her a second time. Instead, she found a way for Hucles to improve her game.
"She still was a little bit uncertain," she said. "I said, 'You have a chance to improve if you change things. You have a choice.' . . . Something happened," Sundhage said. "She decided to get fit and change her speed."
Hucles has responded better than anyone could have imagined. She entered the tournament with but eight goals in 88 international appearances but has scored four times in five games.
For eight months prior to the Olympics, Sundhage changed the style of the team from direct to more of a possession game. Had Sundhage kept the long ball, the U.S. would have been in big trouble without Wambach.
Sundhage admitted she didn't know if the players would agree to a style change.
"It was about asking them if they were going to change," she said. "If it was too much of a change, they might be uncertain or uncomfortable. They got to third place last year. A few small changes would have helped them. I am so different. I come from Europe. The play has been fantastic. Even Pellerud, the Canada coach was there for eight years. I have been there for eight months."
It has worked. “It’s just a different team," defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx said. "A lot of the same players, but we’re playing different, our attitude is different and we play as a group. It’s just so fun to watch and play. I’ve seen that grow a lot this year. We’ve come together as a team, and I think that’s the difference.”
Sundhage likes to have fun with her players, but lets them know who is the boss. That can be a fine line, especially when a team doesn't play well or loses. When the U.S. fell to Norway, 2-0, in the opening game of this tournament on two early goals caused by U.S. errors, Sundhage decided to accentuate the positive and point out how well the U.S. recovered from those early doldrums and bounced back.
The media might not have agreed with her assessment, but it helped the team heal from a disastrous start that could have sunk the Olympics.
Singing and dancing seem to be a prequisite to be on the team. When the U.S. endured a 100-minute lightning delay in its quarterfinal game against archrival Canada, the team played music -- hip-hop, jazz and slow -- and danced in the locker room.
Sundhage had other plans, but realized the players' ideas were better than her own.
"I had a plan, but I changed my mind," she said. "The players handled it very well. The team coached itself in the locker room. I am proud of the team."
When she was asked to describe the team's change from the first game of the Olympics until now after the 4-2 semifinal win over Japan, Sundhage broke into a big smile and said, "The times are a-changing."
But Sundhage is far from a song and dance woman. She is a student of the game. Not only does she know her X's and O's, but she understands the importance of communication and psychology of dealing with players, which has become increasingly more important through the years.
A quick background check on the 48-year-old Sundhage, who scored 71 times in 146 appearances for Sweden before retiring in the 1996 Olympics. She was voted No. 6 among in the FIFA voting of the women's player of the 20th century. Sundhage started her coaching as a player-coach, directing Hammarby and then Sweden's National Youth Teams for 11 years. She was a scout for the United States at the 2004 Summer Games and her scouting reports were spot on. The rest of her biography can be read at www.ussoccer.com. But you get the picture.
Her influences have been vast, from teachers to coaches to the legends of the game. As a youngster, not surprisingly, it was Johan Cruyff, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't have a female player as a role model because the sport" had no heroes at the time at the women's level, according to Sundhage.
There was a high school teacher who didn't necessarily have to use her voice to communicate. "She has a great way of paying attention and get feedback," Sundhage said. "She wasn't that vocal. . . . She had a great way of using her eyes. Everybody thought she was looking at [them]."
At the coaching level, it was Ulf Lyfors, who directed the Swedes and a 24-year-old Sundhage to the women's European Championship in 1984.
In recent years, Sundhage has learned her soccer coaching in three countries on as many continents -- her native Sweden, where she was an important National Team and club player, in China, where she was the assistant National Team coach at last year's WWC and in the United States, first as an assistant with the Philadelphia Charge, where she learned from coach Mark Krikorian, then as the head coach of the Breakers.
"I had just such a good time," she said. "What I learned from that is culture and communications. It is very important to reach the player where she is, and when you have different kinds of culture in front of you, in order to reach them you have to adjust the way you communicate. There is one thing in the American style and with the Boston Breakers: you’re brave. You try. You are not afraid of changes. If you convince them to do certain things, they go 100 percent. And that is a wonderful quality I think many American players have.”
Sundhage's experience in the WUSA helped her learn the differences between the two soccer cultures.
Asked what was the difference was, Sundhage replied, “I would say ‘Just got for it,’ that expression. In Sweden we will probably try to talk through it, be a little bit more organized to be sure we do the right thing and not eager to go 1 v 1 for instance. And, what I found out in Boston, go for it, try it and you demand a lot of yourself. You do it in a group in Sweden in terms of organization, and I think that is a little bit different from the American way.”
While Chinese women were a disaster at the 2007 WWC, Sundhage learned a few more lessons.
“That’s another experience and I would say I learned most about communication," she said. "I don’t speak Chinese and in order to reach the players I improved my body language."
When she was hired as U.S. coach, she said body language was something she would bring to the job. "And make sure it is good body language," she said. "I breathe the Chinese soccer style and that is good to know when we meet them.”
Sundhage was hired through the Summer Games. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who wanted to see how the team would respond under her, had said there were options for two or three years and even beyond. The next WWC is in Germany in 2011.
Sundhage did not have a problem with the short contract. “I like the challenge," she said at the time. "I think it’s a good idea to have the Olympics, and then it makes sense to see how that goes even though it’s a short amount of time."
Regardless how the U.S. fares in Thursday's encounter, Pia Sundhage already has made her mark on U.S. Soccer.