She will leave behind a legacy of tranquility and success that U.S. Soccer must defend and cherish as it ventures into the unknown future.
What was supposed to be a five-game “victory tour” has taken a sharp turn. Shortly before the U.S. beat Costa Rica 8-0, Sundhage confirmed she was on the way out. She will lead the U.S. in two friendly games against Australia (Sept. 16 and 19) but will not remain in place when the team meets Germany for two games in October.
Sundhage will become Sweden’s head coach Dec. 1, ending a five-year tenure with the American squad. U.S. Soccer has begun the search for her replacement. Saturday’s announcement came as a shock to many, as the woman who led the American renaissance decided to walk away after completing a golden masterpiece at the London Olympics.
“It was an honor to be able to coach these players for five years, and I learned a tremendous amount from them,” Sundhage said in a statement. “I want to thank all the players and all of my assistant coaches for making me better.
“Before I took this job, I always admired the spirit and character of the U.S. team, but to experience that firsthand on the training field and from the bench as their coach was truly special and something I will treasure for the rest of my life.
“Although it is time to move on, I’d like to thank U.S. Soccer for this wonderful opportunity, and I wish this team and the players all the best in the future.”
The U.S. camp is a better place than the one Sundhage walked into in 2007. She inherited a talented but fractured group and convinced key figures to put their differences aside for the good of the program. The unified group won Olympic gold in 2008, and Sundhage was retained.
“It was short-term chaos. It was a controversial period,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. “When we first had Pia come aboard, she was on a one-year contract with an option. … She stabilized the situation to win gold, and we come very close to winning three gold medals in three tournaments.”
The U.S. returned to the top just when the women’s game (at the elite level) was becoming more competitive than it had ever been. That 2008 triumph allowed her the time and space she needed to perform her greatest trick: overseeing the evolution of the national team — in terms of style, tactics and personnel — into what it is today. As established veterans began to fade, Sundhage heaped responsibility onto the shoulders of players entering their peak years. She also integrated young stars like Alex Morgan into the senior setup.
That all culminated at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where the U.S. went on a famous run to the final. Despite the loss to Japan on penalty kicks, America embraced a team that captivated the country with its never-say-die attitude. The “Girls of Summer” would get their revenge a little over a year later, beating Japan in the Olympic final to win gold.
Sundhage’s record at the helm of the U.S. team stands at 88-6-10, and the win count will likely reach 90 when she steps aside. That total includes two Olympic gold medals among 11 tournament titles and the runner-up finish at the World Cup.
The 52-year-old tactician’s critics like to point to the U.S. defense as an area of concern. They may have a point, as Sundehage’s methods didn’t lead to soccer perfection. But they generated something much more important for the women’s game: affection. Sundhage’s team removed the drama from the locker room and brought it to the field. Whether it led to wins, losses or draws didn’t matter so much as the fact that the country began to love the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team for the first time in a decade.
Sundhage, a native of Sweden, leaves with the blessing of the U.S. soccer community. A proper way to thank her would be to ensure that her legacy is a lasting one.