No worries as U.S. women tie Germany
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The post-Pia Sundhage era began ambivalently Saturday night, if the U.S. women's soccer team's 1-1 tie with Germany is the ultimate indicator.
But of course, it is not. For starters, after taking a quick 1-0 lead, the Americans had to dig deep to hold off the No. 2 team in the world. The Germans were not only eager to defeat the Olympic gold medalists after failing to qualify for London themselves, but they are also in a different training cycle as they prepare for the European championships.
More than that, Sundhage's team has never been accused of being ambivalent.
That legacy is likely to stick, at least for a while, as the U.S. program transitions to a new coach, vowing to maintain the fan support evident at Toyota Park on Saturday. The crowd of 19,522 was the fourth consecutive sellout in the seven-stop Fan Tribute Tour.
"For me, this is what it's about," said fan favorite Abby Wambach. "Of course you want to come out and win and show the crowd what we can do. But more importantly, it's about the experience. And the environment the crowd creates is far more important to me than the actual outcome of the game. It proves to me what we've done, what we've accomplished."
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati has said he hopes to have a new coach in place as early as November. In the meantime Jill Ellis, director of development for the U.S. women's national teams, is serving as the interim coach.
Sundhage was just what the U.S. team needed when she arrived on the job in November 2007.
She was the seventh head coach in U.S. team history and the third woman, but all that mattered was that she almost immediately eased the tension that threatened to do more damage than it had any right to do.
The next coach is not likely to sing to the players the way Sundhage did. But then, raising morale is not necessary right now. There will always be challenges, however.
Back in '07, goalkeeper Hope Solo had just been sent home from the World Cup in China for criticizing then-coach Greg Ryan for benching her for the semifinals. Solo also tweeted herself into trouble during this summer's Olympics by criticizing former U.S. star-turned-commentator Brandi Chastain for her mildly negative commentary.
Both times, Sundhage handled the burgeoning controversies as calmly as a wise school principal.
"On the field, it's OK to make a mistake," she said at the time. "There's no such thing as a perfect game. And sometimes you make a mistake outside the field as well. Myself as well. I've regretted that I've said that or whatever, but at the end of the day if you have good teammates and recognize it and say something that we are proud of, then it is easier to prepare for the next game -- because it's all about the next game."
The new coach, Wambach told reporters this week, will have to be someone who "can put all the X's and O's together but who can also treat this more like a business. Gone are the days when the players aren't recognized. We're selling out stadiums."
The women's game is at a crossroads domestically (despite the U.S. team having won gold medals in London and Beijing) as the U.S. federation looks into the prospects of a new professional league.
"I'm hoping there's a league and I'm hoping it's quality," Alex Morgan said. "If not, some of us are looking abroad if there aren't other options, because Germany, France and Sweden have pretty good leagues."
In the meantime, these are women who no longer are simply athletes but savvy businesswomen who have their own theories on growing the sport.
"We want to grow the sport, yeah, but we want to keep that love for the game that these little girls have," Morgan said. "You see all the signs and jerseys and face paint, and we want to keep them coming to games with dreams of playing professional soccer.
"Winning always helps but I think we have a responsibility with social media, reaching out to the fans and making ourselves a positive influence for these little girls."
Team captain Christie Rampone -- who at 37 said she has not ruled out playing in the next World Cup in three years -- said the team's new coach has to juggle all of it.
"It's a [big] job," Rampone said. "A lot of people forget you only see a little glimpse of being on the field and the soccer side, but a lot of it is off the field and the challenges off the field, because media plays a big role in helping us grow as a sport. That can be a good and bad thing, but as long as you have a leader that squashes everything behind the scenes, you should be good to go."
Sundhage, who left to take over as the women's national team coach in her native Sweden, certainly knew how to squash.
Rampone said the program has to remain open-minded.
"Even when Pia came in, it's always a new challenge," Rampone said. "It's buying into the new coach's system, adapting to their coaching style, their meetings, their training sessions, and it takes time, but it's always good energy. It's refreshing when something new comes in but we have to stick with that game plan and stay committed to what our leader has in mind."
Solo, for one, isn't overly concerned.
"Everybody is afraid of change, but this program has continued to get better and better and better," she said. "From the '99 team to the way we played in the 2011 World Cup [losing in a shootout to Japan in the finals], it keeps growing, and that's what any sport should do. So of course, change is difficult, but I think we're going to continue to do good things."