Ryan Has U.S. Women Back on Track

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

CHENGDU, China, Sept. 10 -- As a new generation of U.S. soccer players steps into the spotlight of the Women's World Cup on Tuesday, intent to forge an identity with an American public that barely knows their names, Coach Greg Ryan is perfectly content remaining in the shadows.

Having not lost a game in regulation time since being appointed 2 1/2 years ago, Ryan certainly has reason to crow. But at every turn, he has ensured that the focus remains on his team.

"For me, I'm almost done with what I needed to do," he said on the eve of the Americans' Group B opener against North Korea. "This is a players' game. Players win games and players win championships, and we're looking forward to letting the players step onto the field and show what they can do."

Ryan's reluctance to make himself part of the U.S. team narrative is rooted, in part, in his personality. In the egocentric world of professional coaching, he is polite and thoughtful, almost dull. At his news conference Sunday, his soft voice was barely audible and, on one occasion, he deferred to team captain Kristine Lilly to answer a question.

Ryan, 50, has also created a clear separation between himself and the players, a businesslike approach that striker Abby Wambach described as, "You do your job, I am going to do mine, and if we can do both together successfully, we are going to win."

That division was no more evident than in the past few days. While the players went on two excursions, including a visit to a panda reserve, Ryan stayed behind at the team's upscale riverside hotel finalizing plans for the North Korea match.

"Greg separates himself from the emotion, which for girls can go both ways," forward Heather O'Reilly said. "He doesn't want to get involved in our personal lives. He cares about the team and that's where it ends."

An assistant under previous coach April Heinrichs, Ryan saw areas where the team needed to evolve. He introduced young players and ushered out some older ones. He placed greater emphasis on team defense, on the speed of transition from defense to offense (and vice versa) and on committing more players to the attack.

The result is a dynamic, mixed-age squad that has gone 39-0-7 under Ryan and reemerged as the World Cup favorite after losing to eventual champion Germany in the 2003 semifinals. The Americans have, in fact, lost one game during Ryan's reign, to Germany at the Algarve tournament in Portugal in early 2006, but it came in a penalty kick tiebreaker, which is officially considered a tie.

"The big difference between Greg is the drills that he has brought. Before you had everyone coming from the Carolina school of coaching, which has been very successful but the drills were all based on one another," Kate Markgraf, a nine-year veteran defender, said in reference to the philosophy implemented by UNC Coach Anson Dorrance, who guided the U.S. program in the early 1990s.

"Some people have been doing the same drills for 20 years, and when Greg came, it just came to stop being drills and just started to be playing more. That was his first year. And in '06 he started doing technical and tactical training based on positions, and he has continued that. I have never done so much defensive training with my defenders in my life."

Ryan draws from his playing background. After an all-American career at Southern Methodist University, he was among a minority of American players in the North American Soccer League and played six seasons as a defender with Tulsa, New York and Chicago.

In a 2005 interview with FIFA.com, he recalled arriving at Giants Stadium for the first time as a member of the Cosmos and "there was Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto all lying there getting massages -- I couldn't believe I was actually there, it was like a dream. They taught the young players like myself so much, they accelerated our understanding of the game and helped us on and off the field in such an amazing way."

Ryan began his coaching career as an assistant with the Colorado College men's program and then ran the Wisconsin women's team for eight years and two trips to the NCAA final four. He moved to the SMU women's team and then back to Colorado College, this time to guide the women, before joining the U.S. program as a regional coach.

The main difference coaching men and women? "The women definitely respond better to a positive approach than a negative approach," he explained. "There are times with guys where you have to hit them over the head with a tire iron. And they need that. With women, if you are hard all the time, you are going to lose your team."

Ryan has also offered the freedom to improvise.

"He has created an environment for players to grow, to make decisions on their own," Wambach said. "It's definitely different. The feel and place where we are emotionally is very good right now."

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