Pia Sundhage is supposed to be living a dream.
She’s coaching the national team she once played for in the nation where she grew up. She has Sweden ranked fifth in the world and competing for a World Cup title.
But on Thursday afternoon she sounded more wistful than wonder-struck. In a little more than 24 hours her new team would meet her old one, the United States, in the second game of group play at the women’s World Cup. But if you closed your eyes as she spoke and focused on the words and not the speaker, it was hard to tell which team she was with.
Three times she called the U.S. the best team in the world. Her favorite players, she said, were Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd — yep, both Americans.
And the reason Sundhage was here in Winnipeg, wearing a Swedish team shirt at a news conference during the World Cup, was “because of the U.S. team,” she said. “They made me look good.”
Returning to Sweden, then, may have taught her the artificial grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
With the U.S., she lost just six of 107 games in five years. With Sweden, she’s already lost 10 times in 36 games.
With the U.S. she won two Olympic gold medals and pushed Japan to penalty kicks in the 2011 World Cup final. With Sweden, she’s done no better than the semifinals of the European Championships and three straight fourth-place finishes in the Algarve Cup.
With the U.S. her quirky behavior — Sundhage pulled out a guitar and sang to her players in her first and last meetings as coach — was embraced as weirdly endearing. With Sweden it was just considered weird, the players greeting Sundhage’s first solo with silence and blank stares.
Although the free-spirited Sundhage came from Sweden, it’s clear her return there hasn’t gone as smoothly as she had hoped. So when her contract runs out in 2016, she said, she “most likely ... will do something else.”
But first comes Friday, with Sweden needing at least a draw to improve its chances of advancing to the knockout round while a U.S. win would assure the Americans move on. And Sundhage, 55, will have played a major role in the outcome no matter how the game ends.
Eighteen of the 23 players on the U.S. team played for Sundhage and eight of them — including Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux — got their national team starts under her. Even U.S. Coach Jill Ellis was promoted to the senior team under Sundhage, who named her an assistant coach in 2008, less than two months after taking the job.
The two have since become close with Ellis crediting Sundhage for helping take some of the anxious edges off her coaching style.
“Patience is one of the things I took away from her,” Ellis said of Sundhage, whom she described as the kind of friend you’d like to have a beer with.
“At times Pia would just sit back and let them play. And her outlook is really good, really positive. Always the glass is half full.”
That approach made Sundhage popular with the players as well.
“She has a really unique coaching style,” said midfielder Tobin Heath, named to the U.S. national team by Sundhage in 2008. “She really brings the best out in players because she’s so positive and encouraging. A lot of players learned that under Pia and have taken that into this new step in our journey.”
That’s because Sundhage, in many ways, is just like the women she coached: talented, confident and possessed of more than a little swagger.
Before embarking on a coaching career that would take her to four countries and three World Cups, Sundhage played for six clubs during an 18-year career. Internationally, she scored a Swedish-record 71 goals while playing in 146 games — and appeared on one postage stamp.
Sundhage finished sixth in voting for FIFA’s women’s player of the century.
Yet for all those accomplishments, what the U.S. players remember most about Sundhage is her big laugh and the way she could sweat the small stuff while letting big things go.
“I loved my time with her,” Heath said. “She really gives you that freedom to express yourself.”
The players weren’t as enamored with Sundhage when she expressed herself in the New York Times, though. In an April interview Sundhage, who has always spoken her mind, said Lloyd had major struggles with her confidence, called Hope Solo one of the most challenging players she has ever coached and said Wambach, at 35, was a part-time player.
None of that was new — or even particularly controversial. But it struck some as taunting on the eve of a big game. So after reminding everyone that the decision to print an April interview in June was made not by her but by the New York Times, Sundhage launched into a four-minute clarification in which she repeated her respect for Lloyd and Wambach while calling Solo both “the best goalkeeper in the world” and “a piece of work.”
However the words were intended, U.S. defender Lori Chalupny said they aren’t likely to affect the way her teammates approach Friday’s game.
“When you’re in a World Cup, there’s no extra motivation needed,” she said.
The same may be true of coaches. For Sundhage, after all, Friday’s game is something of a dream matchup: on one side is a dream that worked out, on the other a dream she’s still trying to salvage.
“If you believe in something, it might come true,” Sundhage said hopefully. “And I experienced that with the U.S. team.”