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Women's World Cup: Coach Pia Sundhage uses different pitch

Published: Friday, July 15 2011 10:03 p.m. MDT

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, center-left, gets playful during a recent training session. (Johannes Eisele,Afp/Getty Images) U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, center-left, gets playful during a recent training session. (Johannes Eisele,Afp/Getty Images)

FRANKFURT, Germany — Pia Sundhage has sought to motivate the U.S. women's soccer team less with classic speeches than with classic rock.

When she became coach in 2008, after a contentious third-place finish for the Americans at the 2007 World Cup, Sundhage gathered her players in a meeting and began singing, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

Christie Rampone, the U.S. captain playing in her fourth World Cup, said she thought, "OK, this is going to be different."

It was Sundhage's disarming way of letting her players know that there would be cultural and tactical alterations for a team experiencing corrosive internal strife and playing a brand of soccer that Sundhage believed relied too much on athleticism and not enough on technical skill.

The cultural change has been more broadly successful than the tactical switch, but the United States has reached the Women's World Cup final, on Sunday against Japan, seeking a third title after winning in 1991 and 1999.

United States head coach Pia Sundhage, left, high fives midfielder Heather O'Reilly during a training session in preparation for the final match against Japan during the Women?s Soccer World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany, Friday, July 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) (Associated Press) United States head coach Pia Sundhage, left, high fives midfielder Heather O'Reilly during a training session in preparation for the final match against Japan during the Women?s Soccer World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany, Friday, July 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) (Associated Press)

And Sundhage, 51, a native of Sweden and a former star on its national team, is still singing to her players with a philosophy meant to foster composure instead of reckless haste, and encouragement instead of criticism.

"This life is about competition; there is a lot of pressure, a lot of stress," she said at a news conference Friday. "Then I just tell them," — and here she broke into Simon and Garfunkel's "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" — "'Slow down, you move too fast/you got to make the morning last/just kicking down the cobblestones/looking for fun and feelin' groovy.'"º

It is a style of coaching that midfielder Heather O'Reilly calls "glass is half full to the max." And it has been largely successful in endearing Sundhage to her players, though they have yet to master the ball-control, possession-type soccer that she prefers and believes is necessary against disciplined, savvy teams like France and Japan.

"She's more laid-back than any coach I have ever had," goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "She wanted to bring fun back to the game. She wanted to make us think for ourselves." She didn't want to be on the sidelines coaching every pass. She pushed the creative envelope, got us thinking on our own."

Fun is something the Americans definitely were not having when Sundhage was hired.

Their 2007 World Cup had imploded when Greg Ryan, then the coach, benched Solo for a semifinal match against Brazil, which proceeded to rout the United States, 4-0. Solo then publicly criticized Ryan, who kept her away from the team for the third-place game and the plane ride home. A number of Solo's teammates ostracized her, believing she had been critical of her replacement, Briana Scurry, when she said she could have saved the shots that Scurry did not.

Ryan's contract was not renewed, and Sundhage became the first foreign-born coach of the women's team as the 2008 Beijing Olympics approached.

"I knew I had to do something, so I pretty much listened," Sundhage said shortly after she was hired. "I asked the players, 'What do you want to happen?' The other question was, 'Do you want to win?' Yes, of course, they said. Then I said, 'We need good goalkeepers.'"

Solo came back into the team and made a critical save at the Beijing Games as the United States defeated Brazil for the gold medal. And she has played superbly here, making another huge save in a penalty-kick shootout against Brazil in the quarterfinals.

Sundhage's other personnel decisions have also proved to be astute. As the World Cup opened, she placed Lauren Cheney at left wing, taking Megan Rapinoe out of the starting lineup and using her as a substitute. Both have flourished.

Sundhage risked playing with three defenders after Rachel Buehler was red-carded against Brazil, and the Americans got a late goal in overtime to force penalty kicks. During the semifinal against France, she switched from a 4-4-2 alignment to a 4-5-1, dropping forward Abby Wambach deep and shifting Cheney into central midfield to calm the frantic Americans.

"Pia just brings that calmness," Rampone said. "She never shows through her body language that she's nervous. She's someone you can look toward in tough situations as a leader."

The Americans have supported these chess moves without complaint, O'Reilly said, because the players appreciate that Sundhage reinforces what they do right instead of stressing what they do wrong.

"It has to do with her looking at everything in a positive light," O'Reilly said.

Sundhage often says that she coaches "what is healthy," meaning that if a player makes a determined run, bends a daring pass or takes an ambitious shot, "I try to tell them this is good, try it again," instead of "this is not good enough."

"It is OK to make mistakes," she said. "The biggest mistake you can make is if you don't try. You need relaxed players who try hard."

But trying hard may not be enough to win another World Cup.

The United States is still prevailing more with athleticism, fitness, speed and resolve than with soccer skills. Sundhage has implored her team to rely less on the long ball and headed goals from Wambach, to be more unpredictable and patient, to draw more players into the attack, to string together more than two or three passes. Otherwise, the Americans risk exposure and exhaustion if they are forced to chase the Japanese for much of Sunday's final.

"We need to keep possession better, need to be more patient," Sundhage said. "It will be hard only to defend and defend."

During her own career with the Swedish national team, Sundhage played several positions, but as her position changed, her personality did not.

"She used to sing at all the banquets," said Julie Foudy, a former U.S. captain who played in those earlier World Cups. "We used to chant for her to sing and laugh and say, 'Who is this crazy lady? We love her.'"

Women's World Cup

Third place game

France vs. Sweden

Saturday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2

Final

United States vs. Japan

Sunday, 12:45 p.m., ESPN

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