How do you say goodbye to Pia Sundhage?
DENVER -- They've known for a while now this was coming. Or at least sensed it. This wasn't a forever relationship. They'd have to say goodbye.
U.S. women's soccer coach Pia Sundhage would go home to Sweden one day. She would move on and the U.S. national team would have to, too. This run they've been on together, this run that has resurrected the sport in this country and turned the players on this team into superstars and role models, it would end when the Swedish-born coach decided it was time to go home.
But when the day came Wednesday, star forward Abby Wambach was at a loss.
"We've been talking about it all day," Wambach said. "What can we do to show her?"
Show her what she had meant to them? To the sport? To the millions of fans across the country who joined in the magical Olympic gold-medal runs in 2008 and 2012 and a runner-up finish at the 2011 Women's World Cup?
"We thought about it," Wambach said. "And we knew the best thing we could do was get her a win."
And oh-so-fittingly, the United States dominated a young Australian squad, scoring five unanswered goals to finish with an emphatic 6-2 victory in Sundhage's last game with the team.
The win in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd of more than 20,000 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park gave Sundhage one last bow at the end of the most successful coaching run in women's soccer history.
The coach who began her tenure singing songs to a team in disarray following a disappointing third-place showing at the 2007 World Cup, ended it by taking an impromptu victory lap around the stadium while her team serenaded her with "You Are My Sunshine."
"I took a chance," Sundhage said of her lap around the pitch. "I wanted to do it."
It was the perfect end to a nearly perfect run. Because for the last five years, that's exactly what Sundhage has been: Sunshine.
She came in when skies were gray following the ugly end to the 2007 World Cup, when goalkeeper Hope Solo was sent home for making disparaging remarks about then-coach Greg Ryan's decision to start veteran Briana Scurry over her in the semifinals.
And she very quickly made them happy with a positive, laid-back approach that helped transform American soccer, both tactically and spiritually.
The American game became more sophisticated under Sundhage. Bigger, stronger, fitter and faster were replaced by smarter, slicker, quicker and craftier. Players like star forward Alex Morgan and midfielders Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Lauren Cheney and Megan Rapinoe, who excelled at possessing the ball and creating chances with their skill and smarts, became featured options.
"She never pushed me into another position, or forced me to do anything," said Morgan, who scored two goals and assisted on two others Wednesday night. "She let me play on the field how I wanted to play and then guided me along here and there.
"Pia's very positive. If you ask her to pull up clips of when you didn't succeed or parts you should've improved on, she'll say, 'Why don't you talk to another coach about that?' She wants to pull out the positive. She shows us all the goals we score in pregame meetings. She wants us to have that confidence always."
After its epic gold-medal run at the London Olympics, the U.S. team is brimming with confidence. Wednesday night's game was the third stop on a 10-game fan appreciation tour that continues against Germany in Chicago on Oct. 20.
Sundhage will be back in Sweden by then, taking over as national team coach on Dec. 1. She hopes to lead her country to victory at the European Championships next year in Sweden.
It's a new challenge after conquering this one.
"It comes to an end and I have to move on," Sundhage said Wednesday night. "I want to go home, but I will always remember this team and these kinds of crowds."
Like Wambach, Sundhage spent most of the day trying to figure out how to say goodbye.
It's unreal. I come from a small town in Sweden where I wasn't supposed to play soccer because girls didn't play soccer. And here I am, standing in front of a great crowd and I hear my name shouted. It's a dream. I'm living my dream.Pia Sundhage
There was a game to be played, that's what always mattered most. Two 45-minute halves. Just play good soccer, that's all she ever asked.
But she did need to say goodbye. To the team she'd come to love. To the fans who'd come to love her. And to the country that had adopted her for these past five great years.
"I didn't know exactly how to say goodbye," Sundhage said. "And it's hard to say thank you to the players."
So she did what she's always done when the language barrier was too much or words failed her: She sang.
As the players gathered for their last meeting before the game, Sundhage told them to lie on the ground and close their eyes. Not to meditate or visualize, but to listen. She pulled out the guitar they'd presented her with over the weekend in Los Angeles and sang from the heart.
"50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" by Paul Simon. "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the first song she ever sang to them in 2007, by Bob Dylan. "If Not for You," by Dylan and George Harrison. And of course, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," by John Denver.
So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go
Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Don't know when I'll be back again
Oh baby, I hate to go
When the game was over, she sang again. Just a few bars this time because her emotions had gotten the best of her.
"You're simply the best," Sundhage sang to her team. "Better than all the rest. Better than anyone. Anyone I ever met."
Tina Turner. Perfect.
There wasn't a dry eye on the pitch or in the stands.
"It's unreal," Sundhage said. "I come from a small town in Sweden where I wasn't supposed to play soccer because girls didn't play soccer. And here I am, standing in front of a great crowd and I hear my name shouted. It's a dream. I'm living my dream."
Now, she'll pursue another dream. Her flight to Sweden is Thursday.
"Sweden is hosting the European Championships," she said. "Standing in front of a Swedish crowd and trying to play some good soccer, I'm really looking forward to that."
The challenge for the Americans will be just as great. There will be a new voice soon and possibly a new direction. Things will change, as they always do. To keep this going, they'll have to win in spite of it.
"Obviously there will be change because you don't know the style of the next coach," captain Christie Rampone said. "We just need to stay open-minded. If you think it's going to be the same way Pia ran it, you're mistaken, just as it was from Tony [DiCicco] to April [Heinrichs] to Greg [Ryan] and then Pia."
United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said this week he hopes to have a new coach in place within 30-45 days.
Wambach, for one, wasn't ready to think about that just yet.
"This is Pia's night," Wambach said. "She'll forever have a place in the hearts of all us players for U.S. soccer. We wish her nothing but the best second-place finishes for the rest of her career."
Wambach can joke like that because she and Sundhage have developed a great relationship over the years. When she read the starting lineup Wednesday, Sundhage introduced Wambach as "the dear Abby Wambach."
As close as they are now, Wambach admits she wasn't always sure Sundhage's style would work with this team.
"When a coach comes in and you don't know who they are and they start singing songs to you, you're like, 'How is this going to go?'" Wambach said.
"It was a different team then. It was a team in a little bit of turmoil. But she handled it brilliantly. Another person might have come in and tried to impose themselves. She didn't do that. She let the team figure it out and I think that's part of the reason we've had so much success in the past couple of years."
It's also why this goodbye was so hard. This U.S. players are flying a mile high right now. Even when they're not in top shape, they are still the best team in the world. Their chemistry is great. Their game is sophisticated.
The women's game is as popular as it was after the U.S. won the World Cup on American soil in 1999.
Changing anything seems foolish. Changing the voice that has led them there seems dangerous.
And yet this was anything but sad parting.
Yes, there were tears. From Sundhage, from her players and from the fans.
One player said afterward, "That's the first time we've ever seen her cry."
But they were tears of appreciation and joy, not sadness. They'd given each other a lot and were stronger for it. The team has made her a better coach and she has made them better players. All of them, not just the superstars.
"What's special is that you're seeing a new wave of players coming through," said Lloyd, who scored two goals in the gold-medal victory over Japan. "Whereas four years ago it was really Abby.
"I think this is another huge turning point and we've got to keep it going."
They will all have to move on. Sundhage to Sweden and the U.S. players home for a few weeks, waiting for word on their new coach.
But for one, last magical night, the sun stayed out a little longer.
Sunshine, that is. Pia Sundhage.