We bid goodbye to Pia Sundhage, the U.S. women's manager who won two gold medals and has stepped aside.
Five years, ninety-one wins, six draws, ten losses. Two Olympic gold medals. World Cup runner-up. Numbers that fly past impressive and land somewhere between gaudy and obscene. Even without soccer's biggest prize, Pia Sundhage's time at the helm of the United States Women's National Team is unrivaled. And with a 6-2 win against Australia at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado on Wednesday night, it's also, with a tear-dampened exclamation point, over. Numbers fixed in time, now until forever.
Sundhage came from Sweden - by way of an assistant coaching job with China - salt and pepper haired, guitar wielding, hands ready to clap, a fist ready to pump. Rolling into town - and a team in some kind of turmoil - at the tail end of 2007. The U.S. women had just returned from a third place finish at the Women's World Cup in China, a 4-1 win over Norway to capture the bronze that would always be overshadowed by how they'd gotten there in the first place - a 4-0 drubbing courtesy of Brazil, itself surrounded in all kinds of controversy, from the wrongfully red-carded Shannon Boxx on the field, to the Hope Solo/Briana Scurry goalkeeping mess and everything after off it.
Greg Ryan, Sundhage's predecessor, may have driven this ship into an iceberg, but the new coach wasn't about to let it sink. Sundhage led to the way to a long fence-mending, bringing Solo back into the fold on the simple principle that if the U.S. wanted to win, they needed the best goalkeeper, and that person was Solo. It was easy, in the way that everything with Sundhage seemed easy.
When Abby Wambach broke her leg in a pre-Olympic friendly against Brazil, no worries. Even after the U.S. dropped the opening match of those 2008 games and it looked like the team would really be in trouble without its star striker, Pia remained Pia though, confident and clapping - always clapping - right in doubt's face. There is a gold medal from those Olympics as proof.
Sundhage's easiness though, wasn't always, well, easy. It was at times baffling, frustrating. In 2010 the rest of the world was starting to catch up and the U.S. was slipping. It was only a matter of time. Before the moment, there were hints. Trouble against Sweden and China in a pair of friendlies in July and October respectively, both games that put the domestic unbeaten streak that stretches back to 2004 in serious peril. There was just enough in Omaha and there was the birth of Alex Morgan Time in Philadelphia, but there were cracks. And in the face of it Sundhage remained unchanged.
Sundhage wanted Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet and the newly-returned-from-maternity-leave Christie Rampone - all center backs - in the eleven. And so she put them there, leaving LePeilbet to flounder as an outside back. She was determined to not let us forget Carli Lloyd, despite consistency only in passing to the opponent. Sundhage stuck with Amy Rodriguez, looking more place kicker than striker all the way. This was Pia, dead set on cramming her starting eleven into whatever was at hand, despite the opponent, despite performance, despite evidence that it was time to do something else. It is more difficult to see through rose-colored glasses, especially in Mexico, at night.
Before Morgan in Padua, before Wambach in Dresden, before Krieger sinks the PK and Solo saves one, before Leroux scores five, before Wambach counts how long McLeod holds the ball, before Tancredi stomps on Lloyd's head, before Morgan scores in stoppage, before Lloyd nets two, before the anthem plays and there are gold medals around necks, before selling out stadia across the country, came Mexico in Mexico. Came the moment that nearly destroyed Sundhage's legacy before it had really been built.
In the semi-final of CONCACAF Women's World Cup qualifying, a berth in the big show on the line, Sundhage's team lost. Suddenly doubt about how a team that was struggling would fare against the Germanys and Brazils of the world turned into full-blown panic about whether they'd even get the chance. It was the culmination of frustration, what happens when you stick with what you know, unbending in the face of everything telling you to be flexible.
Even a two-leg playoff against Italy, escaped by the skin of the teeth and the original Alex Morgan stoppage time miracle, couldn't teach Pia a lesson. She was going to get this square peg to fit into the round hole if it was the last thing she did. She'd go all the way to east London, to lose to England for the first time in more than two decades - because losing to Mexico for the first time ever, because the threat of not qualifying for a World Cup for the first time ever - wasn't enough. Yes, this was a team that could frustrate. This was, unmistakably, Pia Sundhage's team.
But for all the frustration was everything after; saluting the troops and singing ‘Born in the U.S.A.' in Sinsheim, the red card, the twice-taken PK, the "near-miracle here in Dresden." This team came back to U.S. as World Cup runners-up and heroes and rock stars all the same. This team, unmistakably, Pia Sundhage's team.
Sold-out victory tour, rolling through Olympic qualifying. Going down by two against France, coming back three times against Canada, another stoppage time strike for the ages, Olympic gold again. Thrilling and expected all at once, square peg now somehow in round hole, undoubtedly Pia's team.
There were just 2,505 people in the stands that night in Philadelphia, the night in 2010 that Alex Morgan Time was born. Two years later, 18,589 people came to say goodbye to the coach who made it possible. And probably, they weren't there for Pia. They were there for Pinoe, Abby, Hope, HAO, Carli, Boxxy, KO, Pearcie, Sauers, Syd, the Buehldozer, Cheney, Tobs and Baby Horse. They were there for this team. But this team is, without question, Pia Sundhage's team.
Pia gave us Ali Krieger, Kelley O'Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, Abby's 100th and Solo's return. She made it okay to celebrate with a song, to do snow angels, to be a little bit silly, to clap for the 18th goal like it's the first. Pia sang to us, scared us, nearly killed us, and made us believe. And she told us, answering a question to which this wasn't the answer, that she "just loved soccer so much.
Two hundred and eighty-five goals, 100 of them in 2012 alone, and Pia cheered each one, clapping and jumping, no doubt. She never needed to tell us she loved this game, we saw, we felt it. We knew. One hundred and seven games. Heart-attack-inducing, heartbreaking, scary, exciting, frustrating, beautiful, ugly. Pia gave us 91 wins, six draws, ten losses, two Olympic golds, and a World Cup final.
Pia Sundhage gave us all of that. Well, she gave us the team that did that - but this was, after all, Pia Sundhage's team. No question.