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|Pia Sundhage's return to Sweden wasn't a total surprise; the coach has long talked about returning to coach in her homeland.|
DENVER -- Shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday, fans began streaming into Dick's Sporting Goods Park, a glorious soccer-only stadium on the outskirts of Denver. First a trickle, then a stream of them, until several thousand filled in the lower bowl to watch a training session for the U.S. women's national team.
Not a game that meant anything. Not a friendly exhibition. A training session. And 15 minutes into warm-ups, they were screaming as though Justin Bieber was about to take the stage.
It has been this way for the Americans since their gold-medal run at this summer's London Olympics.
"We're kind of the American dream team," said midfielder Carli Lloyd, who scored two goals in the gold-medal match against Japan. "It feels like everybody has kind of gravitated toward us.
"It's really been great. Now we've got to continue to ride the wave and do everything we can to keep the game growing."
Not since the 1999 team won the Women's World Cup on U.S. soil has women's soccer been as popular in this country. Lloyd became a household name overnight with her brilliant goals in London. So too did charismatic players such as Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath. Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, who were already stars, became crossover superstars. Huge crowds have greeted them at every stop so far on this 10-game victory tour, and thousands of fans follow them on Twitter and to personal appearances.
But just as this wave seems to be cresting, Pia Sundhage, the woman who has coached the Americans for the past five years, is leaving. After Wednesday night's friendly against Australia, she's going home to her family in Sweden and taking on a new challenge with the national team there.
I have days where I think, 'What am I doing?' and there are other days where I'm like, 'I'm all up for this next challenge.'” -- Pia Sundhage on stepping down
"I have days where I think, 'What am I doing?' and there are other days where I'm like, 'I'm all up for this next challenge,'" Sundhage said Tuesday. "But I've been away for six years. Sweden is hosting the European Championships next year. Standing in front of a Swedish crowd and trying to play some good soccer, I'm really looking forward to that."
The U.S. players have known this might be coming for a while. Sundhage has spoken about eventually returning home to her native Sweden for almost a year. Still, when the news became real earlier this month, it landed heavily on the U.S. team. In the days and weeks since, that emotion has shifted from sentimentality and nostalgia to anxiousness about what lies ahead. Or rather, who lies ahead.
"I wouldn't say fear, but I would say everybody is very anxious to know who it is," Rapinoe said of uncertainty over who the team's next coach will be. "The grass isn't always greener on the other side, so to speak."
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said Monday he hopes to find a successor within 30 to 45 days. There's "a short list" and a lot of interest in the job, but it's not as easy a job to walk into as one might think.
"It's definitely going to be a hard position to come into," Rapinoe said. "You want to make your mark, but we're already very successful, so I think it's going to take someone pretty special."
Whoever gets the job will have to strike a balance between finding their own voice and earning respect as a new coach who is taking over the best soccer team in the world.
Or, as goalkeeper Solo put it, "They can't just hire anyone and make the sport go backwards."
The Americans prospered under Sundhage for many reasons. Upon her arrival in late 2007, Sundhage's calm demeanor helped soothe the scars left from the team's disappointing third-place showing at the 2007 World Cup; her preferred style of play helped transform American soccer into a more sophisticated, consistent brand; and her ability to relate and communicate with players engendered great trust and mutual respect.
"We used to win games as the American team because we were bigger, stronger and faster," Solo said. "We had players like Abby Wambach who can out-jump everyone to score goals. But it wasn't a sophisticated game. Now we're playing through the midfield, we're playing through Carli and [Shannon] Boxx, we're going through the wings. We have a variety in our attack and that was from Pia. We just want to continue to grow that and not go backwards."
Given how successful Sundhage's brand of soccer has been, it would seem logical for her successor to be someone who can continue that style without losing any style points, someone who will not want to reinvent things.
If only it were that simple.
As much as the U.S. players love and admire Sundhage and will undoubtedly miss her, this feels like the right time for both sides to move in another direction and on to new challenges.
"It's a good, healthy parting," Solo said. "She's going to go back to her home country, she's built this game, she's helped elevate it to a new level, so there's not too much to be sad about."
Said Rapinoe: "She definitely wants to go back to Sweden. She's ready for that, and I feel like we're ready for a new direction, as well.
"I think the amount of time that we spend with each other is different. It's not a normal national team where you just come in, spend a few days, play a few games and then leave. You basically live together for four years. It's hard to keep things fresh and it's hard to keep things new."
In other words, in order for the team and its coach to keep improving, they need a new challenge. That is, of course, where they will find themselves after Wednesday night.
A great coach will be on her way home. A great team will be looking for a new coach. All of them hoping to keep riding this big wave for as long as they can.