Since Messy World Cup Derailment, Soccer Team Appears Back on Track

Pia Sundhage, the U.S. women's national soccer team's Swedish coach, has earned the respect of her players. But she doesn't take herself too seriously and has been known to burst into song from time to time. Video by Dan Steinberg/The Washington Post, Edited by
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10, 2008

Eight months have passed since the U.S. women's national soccer team was last in the public eye, a gap that allowed the Americans to begin the process of forgiving a once-scorned teammate and to integrate a fresh wave of players. It gave them the opportunity to embrace a new coach and a new team captain, to alter their playing style and address imperfections.

And as the Olympics approach, a U.S. team that was embarrassed both on and off the field at last fall's World Cup in China appears on course to regain its international stature.

"Certain things happened in '07," said Pia Sundhage, the team's Swedish coach. "They were disappointed in themselves. They want to come back, bounce back, and show the country that they not only can be a winner again, but play nice soccer. They are motivated."

The Americans will continue their preparations for the Summer Games tonight at RFK Stadium with a friendly against regional rival Canada.

Since suffering a 4-0 defeat to Brazil last September in the World Cup semifinals, the U.S. team has a 15-0-2 record and claimed two tournament titles. But while Sundhage (pronounced Soond-HAGH-eh) and the players are pleased with the results, the focus is on the team's evolution and building momentum for a run at a second consecutive Olympic gold medal.

"I've gotten over the depression of not just losing, but the way it all happened and all the controversy that came about," said forward Abby Wambach, who is five goals shy of becoming the fifth player in U.S. history to reach 100. "It wasn't easy, but it was something we all dealt with and I am happy to say it is in the past."

To recap, the Americans entered the World Cup with no regulation losses in 47 games, but sputtered in the group stage of the World Cup and, after defeating England in the quarterfinals, were outclassed by Brazil. During a postgame interview, goalkeeper Hope Solo, benched in favor of Briana Scurry for the semifinal, took aim at then-coach Greg Ryan. Upset by Solo's public outburst, Ryan and the players decided to banish Solo from the team for the third-place game. Attention then turned to Ryan, who was widely criticized for making the goalie change and for his game tactics throughout the tournament.

In the fall, after Solo was invited back, the U.S. Soccer Federation decided to not renew Ryan's contract.

"It's been a struggle for everybody in a number of different ways, but for the most part, things have been smooth," midfielder Carli Lloyd said of Solo's efforts to mend relationships.

Ryan, now the University of Michigan women's coach, was not the only departure. Kristine Lilly, the program's all-time leader in games played with 340 and the final link to the great U.S. teams of the 1990s, left the team to have a baby (due in July) and will miss the Olympics. Defender Christie Rampone inherited the captain's armband.

The biggest change, though, was the hiring of Sundhage, 48, a former Swedish national team star who coached in the ill-fated Women's United Soccer Association and was a China assistant last year.

After the U.S. team exhibited a bland attack at the World Cup and relied heavily on serving the ball to the powerful Wambach, Sundhage has emphasized a possession-oriented style that also maintains traditional U.S. traits.

"It's very European," Wambach said. "It's slower and more methodical, but she wants to bring both cultures together. She wants to possess the ball, but also use that attacking mentality the United States has always had -- that push-it-forward attitude because she thinks, as do we, that we can change the way that women's attacking soccer is perceived and done around the world. It's been a process."

The Americans are scoring goals, but conceding a lot, as well. In each of the past two matches, friendlies against Australia, the U.S. team needed goals during added time for 3-2 and 5-4 victories.

"It is about a change," Sundhage said. "We can't do too big of a change. That's what I was debating: 'Okay, if I make too much of a difference, they will get confused and a little lost. But if it is too small of a change, they won't recognize it.' So the tricky part is to find how much of a change and the timing of the change. For me, it's important to do the right things at the right moments, and so far it has been fantastic."

U.S. Notes: Plans have been finalized for friendlies at Norway on July 2 and Sweden three days later. Games against Brazil on July 13 outside Denver and July 16 in San Diego are also in the works, Sundhage said.

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