Pia's calm through the storms redefined U.S. team
To better understand Pia Sundhage's five years with the U.S. women's soccer team, let's rewind to 2007 and revisit the state of the program at that time.
The U.S. team had been blown out of the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinals in a 4-0 loss against Marta and Brazil. Hope Solo, who was curiously benched for that game, had just been kicked off the team for blasting her coach, Greg Ryan, and U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry after the loss.
The team was playing unattractive soccer and the program seemed to be on a sharp decline only three years after it had won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The team was in chaos; there is no other way to put it.
Cue the music ... and the singing ...
... in walks Pia Sundhage, with her guitar in hand, who busts out Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changin'" tune for the team (no joke ... you cannot make this stuff up). Pia, a former Swedish star player known for her free spirit and tendency to break into song, was hired to coach the U.S. women's team at a time when things surely need some changin'.
When Pia came to the team in November 2007, she either didn't notice the mess or, more appropriately, didn't care. In typical Pia fashion, she brought life back to a team that desperately needed laughter. She was the perfect hire because she didn't just preach enjoy the game, she lived it. And through her joy, players found oxygen.
If you look at her record alone during her tenure as head coach -- two Olympic gold medals, one Women's World Cup final appearance and only six losses overall -- you would be incredibly impressed. But that doesn't tell the whole story; it doesn't even tell the most impressive part of the story. In my opinion, these actually were Pia's defining moments:
• Her first task was to bring Solo back into the family. No easy task given the history of this team and what had transpired. But Pia asked the team to move on and said it needed Solo as a goalkeeper to win, and the team bought in. Whether or not you like Hope's vocal style, you can't say she hasn't been an effective, world-class goalkeeper over these past five years under Pia's direction.
• Just before the 2008 Olympic Games, Pia's first major tournament with the U.S. team, the Americans played in a final "sendoff game" against Brazil before heading to Beijing. In the 31st minute, their biggest star and leading scorer, Abby Wambach, broke her leg ... in the final game before the Olympics. Most coaches would show just a hint of stress upon losing their leading scorer on a team that was having a difficult time scoring. But Pia did not panic. In fact, she was as calm as can be, telling the team it would be fine and adversity brought growth.
• In its opening game of those 2008 Olympics (with everyone reminding the team it was without Wambach), the U.S. gave up two goals against Norway in the first five minutes and lost 2-0. Now, let me remind you, this is after the mess of 2007, after losing Abby and the team living continuously with the pressure of comparisons to our old team of the 1990s and 2000s. Again, no panic from Pia. An opening loss was not a problem, she told the team. She preached about enjoying each game and promised there would be plenty of time left in the tournament to show the world how good the U.S. team was. The Americans went on to beat Brazil (yes, the same Brazil they had lost to the previous year) in the final to win the gold medal.
• Fast forward to the Women's World Cup qualifying tournament in October 2010. The U.S. lost to Mexico in the semifinals and was forced into an extra playoff round of home-and-home games against Italy to qualify. The U.S. had never missed a Women's World Cup; if the Americans didn't qualify, Sundhage's tenure would have been a very short one.
When asked about the way her U.S. team would have to qualify, Pia said then: "OK, we need to take a different road to the World Cup and look at it in a positive way. The glass is half full. It's been a bumpy road, but we need to enjoy it and it will take us all the way to Germany."
First, the U.S. first pulled out a 1-0 win in the first game against Italy, thanks to a goal in the 94 minute from young star Alex Morgan. Then, in what would become a common dramatic theme with this U.S. team, the Americans posted a heart-stopping 1-0 victory in the second game in Chicago to become the last team to qualify for the 2011 Women's World Cup. Pia smiled and promised the experience would make the team stronger.
• At the 2011 Women's World Cup, the U.S. lost 2-1 against Sweden in its final group game, which set up the early powerhouse U.S.-Brazil quarterfinal matchup. Playing a goal and a player down, the U.S. equalized on Wambach's incredible goal in the 122nd minute to force penalty kicks (the U.S. won 5-3 in PKs). Pia said she never doubted her team. Of course she didn't; neither did her players.
• In the Women's World Cup final, the U.S. gave up two leads against Japan, the second coming in the 115th minute, and lost the game on penalty kicks. As gut-wrenching as that loss was, Pia was gracious, smiling and congratulating Japan for its tenacity and style of play.
• I didn't think I would see another U.S. women's game rival the excitement of the Brazil-U.S. Women's World Cup quarterfinal, but it happened just one year later in a semifinal matchup against Canada at the 2012 Olympics. My goodness. The U.S. also had to come back in this match ... not once, not twice, but three times. Morgan scored the game-winner in the 123rd minute (of course) to put the Americans into the Olympic final.
These key moments help put Pia's "way" into perspective. As leaders of teams, corporations, families, countries, whatever it may be, we all strive to be calm, confident, positive leaders who try to inspire others into action. It's easy to do when times are good, but what about in moments of adversity, when there is loss, a setback and/or extreme pressure? How does a leader react? What does a leader do? Because those moments define outcomes. They are the reason a team presses on or a company bounces back. A leader's reaction to adversity says everything to me.
And here is what I know after watching Pia for five years. I know I would want Pia by my side in the trenches. I would want Pia smiling and singing as the rest of the world panics. I would want Pia telling me, "Yes, the road is bumpy, but that is what makes the road so special," when I started to doubt something in life. I would want Pia dancing from the sideline, smiling even when the team was down two goals. I would take a Pia every day in my life to remind me to smile, embrace the moment and enjoy the journey. Dang, we all need a Pia in life.
Sure, there are areas within the team she could have addressed more thoroughly; there are players she could have brought along earlier, but no one can ever question Pia's immense impact on the team's success. Every single U.S. player I spoke to after the 2012 Olympic gold-medal match told me the most special attribute about this group of players was that it didn't panic, that they love the adversity and welcome the challenge, that they enjoyed the adventure. Yes, those were the players talking, but that is Pia Sundhage to the core. She set that tone, she set their way, and the U.S. team is better because of her.
As Pia announced her departure to a sold-out Rochester crowd before the U.S.-Costa Rica friendly on Sept. 1, it seemed perfectly fitting that she busted out another Dylan song, saying "If not for you, I wouldn't be where I am ... " That may be the case, but I am certain the U.S. women's team would not be where it is today without Pia's grace and contagious energy.
Thank you for five great years, Pia. Sweden is lucky to have you back at home. I can't wait to hear what song you bust out for them in that first meeting ... and I cannot deny that I am begging for some ABBA.