PIA SUNDHAGE

Pia Sundhage, a native of Sweden has won the last two Olympic titles as the head coach of the United States women’s national soccer team.

The trademarks of her Gold Medal-winning sides were a powerful and at times explosive offense coupled with a lock-down defense and strong goalkeeping.

Last Friday in Brasilia (08/12/2016) and then Tuesday (08/16/2016) in Rio’s storied Maracana stadium Sundhage, now at the controls as Sweden’s manager dispatched the more heralded and heavily favored US and host nation Brazilian Olympic clubs respectively in consecutive shootout upsets.

The reverberations around the football-loving world were ear-splitting not just because of the final results as monumentally dumbfounding as they were, but rather due to how they were achieved.

The Swedish women will face their German counterparts in the country’s first ever Olympic Gold Medal game which will be played on Friday August 19th.

(As it turned out, Sweden lost the match to Germany 2–1).

Sundhage has enjoyed great success on the pitch both as a player and a coach/manager.

She made her inaugural international appearance for the Swedish National Team as a 15-year-old in 1975, amassing 146 caps and 71 goals before she was through.

The 71 strikes were good for a tie with Lena Videkull for most in SNT history until Hanna Ljungberg snuck ahead with 72 (in 130 caps from 1996–2008; Lotta Schelin currently leads the Swedish pack with 85 goals in 169 caps in an ongoing international career which began in 2004).

Sundhage was the top-scorer and selected Best Player in the 1984 UEFA Women’s Championship won by Sweden, their first-ever title; appeared on a Swedish postage stamp in 1988; and in 2000 finished 6th in the voting for FIFA Women’s Player of the Century.

In a coaching career starting as a player/manager in 1992 and jumping back and forth from one side of the Atlantic to the other, (not to mention a brief stint as an assistant on the staff of the China Women’s National Team during the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup) Sundhage had made her mark and was named the United States Women’s National Team head coach on November 13, 2007.

Her resume as the US Women’s manager and the first foreign-born coach to ever lead the squad was stellar:

She piloted the side to the Portugal-hosted 2008 and 2010 Algarve Cup Championships with a 2009 runner-up finish to Sweden, no less sandwiched in between; she won Gold Medals at both the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics; and she was at the helm as the Women’s team advanced to the final of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, their first such appearance since 1999.

(They were upset in that match by Japan 3–1 on PK’s and exacted their measure of revenge in the 2–1 triumph against Japan securing the Gold in London in ‘12).

Pia Sundhage’s career record as the US Women’s head coach was a sparkling 91–6–10.

Her homeland summoned and she inked a 4-year deal to become the Sweden Women’s National Team Manager on September 2, 2012, effective December 1st.

“I have long dreamed of becoming Sweden coach and now I am so happy,” she gleefully remarked.

As of June 8, 2015 her record was 20–11–8, a winning percentage of 51.28% as compared to the 85.05% mark she posted as the US Women’s head coach.

But the night was young, so to speak.

To one who routinely refers to “2-times-45 minutes” — the length of a regulation football match — in conversation, it is clear what dominates her waking thought processes.

She is obsessed with the game and all of its strategies and nuances; and she likes to win. The aforementioned 51.28 winning percentage of June 2015 was bound to rise, if not eventually skyrocket.

Which leads us to a closer examination of her pair of startling consecutive shootout upsets of the perennial titans — US and Brazil — orchestrated in Rio’s 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

A sidebar: In the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup against Brazil the US was down a player and rather than play a 4–4–1 formation for the remainder of the match (which conventional wisdom would have dictated under this circumstance) Sundhage opted to play only three defenders.

This to counter Brazil’s powerful 3-forward attack featuring Marta who then was the 5-time World Player-of-the-Year.

The US tied the score with seconds left in extra time and won the game 5–3 in a shootout.

Sundhage quipped in the wild aftermath that, “from a tactical standpoint, it was the best decision of my soccer life…” And then somewhat immodestly, “Who else would have done it?”

The point is that this “best [tactical] decision” of hers would be eclipsed by her strategy in Rio where she gave new meaning to turtling.

Retreating into a defensive posture for ninety minutes of regulation play and up to thirty minutes of overtime — twice — frustrated her more talented opponents and translated into two victories and a berth in the Gold Medal match.

Sundhage can win her third straight Gold — this time with her native side.

She conceded that, “it’s a very different way of playing,” then added that it was the “only way to play” against teams which could essentially run the Swedes deep into the pitch.

US Goalkeeper Hope Solo, never one to mince words, deemed it “cowardly.”

Others were disappointed in the style of play which, to the purist may be entertaining, but to no one else.

The candid Sundhage doesn’t care a whit.

She coaches. She is flexible in her thinking. She adapts in order to win.

“Then it becomes just a game, 2-times-45 minutes,” she says simply.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in August 2016.]

ADDENDUM:

Sundhage left the helm of the Sweden women’s national team in August of 2017 to become the head coach of the Sweden women’s national under-17 football team, effective January 1, 2018. In July of 2019 she accepted an invitation from the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) to become the new coach of the Brazil women’s national football team.

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