Hege Riise brings U.S. an edge
In her years as an attacking midfielder for Norway, Hege Riise was renowned for her remarkable vision. She saw spaces no one else did. She threaded passes few would have tried. She turned and attacked with cleverness, creating scoring chances for herself and her teammates. And no one dismantled and thwarted an opponent's game plan as thoroughly as Riise did in her prime.
So when U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, a native of Sweden, sought an assistant in 2009 to help with international strategy and tactics en route to the 2011 World Cup, she didn't care that Riise had starred for a big rival. Nor did Sundhage worry that American players might bristle at the intrusion of another outsider, especially one who helped Norway turn back the U.S. team at the 1995 World Cup and the 2000 Olympics.
"I've been asked that a few times," Sundhage said. "My answer to that was, 'I want the best.'"
Who can argue with that?
The reticent Riise chuckled when asked how a Norwegian could work for a Swede. "I was surprised when Pia called me and offered me the job, I must say," Riise said. "I didn't know her that much, just from playing against her. But as soon as I got here, I felt we were on the same page."
Sundhage said she wanted an international player, not long out of the game, with instant credibility on the nuances of world-class play. She felt that the U.S. team had become too predictable. Riise, with her unparalleled credentials, could help change that.
A former Norwegian captain, Riise is one of only three women to win a World Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a European championship. She earned 188 international caps, scored 58 goals and played in four World Cups before retiring from international play in 2004.
The 1995 World Cup was Riise's finest moment: She won the Golden Ball as the tournament's top player, while leading Norway to the championship. In the Olympics five years later, she assisted on two goals, including the overtime game winner, in Norway's 3-2 gold-medal victory over the U.S., after the Americans tied the game in the final seconds of regulation. The Norwegian Football Association named Riise the country's greatest female player in 2003.
Her expertise could be vital at the World Cup. Midfielder Lindsay Tarpley's torn right knee ligament leaves the United States with only eight players who have World Cup experience, although 13 won Olympic gold medals in Beijing three years ago. Group C, with the U.S., Korea and Sweden -- three of the world's top eight-ranked teams, according to FIFA -- as well as Colombia, is considered the toughest group in the 16-team tournament. The top two in each group will advance to the quarterfinals.
"It's all about finding the spaces," Sundhage said. "If you look at Hege, in the 1995 World Cup or later, she's a champion at looking for spaces and finding space.
"When you're watching video, as a coach, you're always asking, 'Why didn't she go to the right? Why didn't she do this?' I was there 100 years ago, but Hege was there recently. She knows, and that gives her a little bit of an edge. She can watch a little bit of a play and push the right buttons."
Though Riise knew some veteran U.S. players from her three seasons with Carolina in the old Women's United Soccer Association (2002-04), she wondered how they would respond to an old rival in a new position of authority. Riise had already coached three seasons in the Norwegian Premier League when Sundhage hired her, so she wasn't a novice. But by nature, Riise isn't a big talker. Toss in the challenge of trying to coach in a language that is not her native tongue, and Riise was concerned.
"Of course," said Riise, who turns 42 on July 18. "I don't know if I would have gotten the job if the head coach wasn't Pia, or from Sweden.
"It wasn't that long ago that I played for a club team here, and through that, I got to know a few players," she said. "Of course, you never know how players are going to respond. But I felt welcomed, and I thought they would listen to me. It wasn't a big issue."
U.S. attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd, who scored the winning goal in the 2008 Olympics against Brazil, made her international debut in 2005, so she never played against Riise. But she heard so many others describe her in glowing terms that she checked out some choice Riise footage. The national team had plenty. The U.S. and Norway split the 34 matches that Riise played (16-16-2), and for years Norway was the only team in the world with a winning record against the United States.
Lloyd's reaction? "Wow," she said. And working with Riise, Lloyd said, has been inspiring.
"She's kind of shy, and she's a woman of few words," Lloyd said. "But the words she does say to you are spot on and helpful.
"If she really thinks you're having a good game and playing well, she makes a point of coming up to you and telling you," Lloyd said. "That feedback coming from her is awesome. She doesn't do it all the time, but when she does, you feel good about yourself. When she has to make a point, it's to the point. If you go to her with a problem, she always has the right things to say. She's such a sweet person that it makes you want to play well for her."