Pia Sundhage is still finding her way. Although she was about to board a flight Thursday to attend the NCAA Division I women’s soccer championship, the Swede wasn’t sure of her destination’s whereabouts.
“This country is big so I have to learn,” says the U.S. women’s national team’s first foreign coach, en route to College Station, Texas.
The Americans, however, have a lot to learn from Sundhage — the all-time leading scorer in Swedish national team history — and will get their first crash course. She’s only been in the country for a week and has scheduled a five-day training camp starting this weekend.
“It’s been absolutely wonderful. It helps that I’ve been around this game for so long,” says Sundhage, 47, who also served as a scout for the U.S. team (2004), coached the Boston Breakers of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA, 2003), and most recently was an assistant coach for China (2007).
The minicamp marks the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where the Americans hope to redeem themselves after a disappointing third-place finish at the 2007 World Cup.
First, they must get through the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Final Round qualifying tournament, being held April 2-13 in Chihuahua, Mexico. Two countries from the six-team tournament will advance.
U.S. players will gather Saturday through Wednesday at Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles to prepare for the Four Nations tournament in China next month.
“It will be nice to meet them face-to-face. I want them to know how I want to run the drills,” Sundhage says.
The 24-player minicamp roster includes 16 players from the World Cup squad. Goalkeepers Hope Solo and Briana Scurry, both of whom were at the center of a media firestorm at the World Cup that contributed to the firing of then-coach Greg Ryan, are on the roster, too.
“It is a little difficult to relive that. Mentally, I was full of all sorts of emotions,” Solo told AP, referring to her fiery comments after the U.S. lost 4-0 to Brazil in the semifinals when she was benched in favor of Scurry. “The World Cup was the only thing that kept me together after the death of my father (in June), kept me fighting and together and dedicated to the game.…
“I know I have some friendships to rebuild and teammates to rebuild relationships with. But there is nothing I can go back and do. Never did I intend to put down a teammate, and that is the thing that hurts the most. I always have respected and will respect Bri.”
Kristine Lilly, the 36-year-old captain who has yet to decide if she will retire, will not be at camp.
“I talked to people who know these players very well and got their input,” Sundhage says. “I have a little bit of a game plan where I find the right players.”
Some of those voices she’ll rely on include former national coaches April Heinrichs and Ryan.
“Pia is a fantastic person,” says Ryan, who was on Heinrichs’ 2004 Olympic staff. “I’m going to do anything I can to help her out as she gets started with the team. She’ll bring some great qualities and a different approach on and off the field. The players will probably thrive under Pia’s leadership.”
Sundhage, still putting together her staff, considers all roster spots open. She wants the team to take a more cerebral approach.
“You always want to run at people and score goals,” Sundhage says. “I want to tweak that a little bit and be smarter to find a better moment and a better chance.
“Attacking soccer is rhythm. You actually slow down the game a little bit. It takes a while. You have to be patient.”
“Decision-making is crucial if you want to keep your position.”