Friday, August 22, 2008

The Pia Principle

I think if there was ever any doubt that Pia Sundhage is the ideal coach for the U.S. women's team, they've been erased. In gold.

This piece highlights some of the reasons why her approach works

I can't help but wonder if the men's senior team had taken a similar chance, had been willing to go a different route and stretch their concept of the game by bringing in someone who looks at play in a fundamentally different way, if they might not be better off in the long run.

Sundhage knew she couldn't overcome the resistance the U.S. players had built up to a possession style all at once. Everyone saw a lot of long balls punted by the American players during the tournament. No one could do a complete 180 from the way they played for so long.

She stayed positive, however, and kept preaching the message, in close games, in blow-out wins. She'd emphasize again and again: keep the ball, be creative, work together, look for each other.

Sundhage walked the walk as well. There was no wholesale replacement of the team, but there was a steady infusion of young blood. Players were rewarded for playing well, not just scoring goals. Heath, Rodriguez, Cheney, Hucles and Barnhart all moved up the depth chart. Solo was brought back into the fold with as little drama as possible. When Briana Scurry complained about Nicole Barnhart being made the second goalkeeper at the games, Sundhage didn't bat an eye. She named Scurry as the alternate and got on with the business of preparing the team.

One thing that I was concerned about before the Olympics was the claustrophobic nature of residency camp with the same players over and over. It's hard to avoid cliques and petty issues in such a fishbowl environment. Sundhage told me that yes, it definitely affected players to not be involved in more competitive games. She made the best of the situation, though.

Now that the WPS is in place, players will scatter to different teams. Sundhage can monitor games, see who is progressing, who is breaking out and hold camps instead of trying to simulate a competitive environment with the same players taking on club teams of teenage boys anxious to show off their latest dribbling tricks (actually, that was probably good practice for Brazil).

In some ways, as the U.S. team continues to improve, I think we'll really see then how good of a coach Sundhage is. She was under the gun all year, signed to a short-term performance-based contract, but now, the future looks golden. This Olympic medal, earned against the odds and against the grain, could signify the sunrise of a new era for the U.S. women.


Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Very good post, a.c. This comment speaks volumes:

One thing that I was concerned about before the Olympics was the claustrophobic nature of residency camp with the same players over and over. It's hard to avoid cliques and petty issues in such a fishbowl environment.

If anything explains the cruel treatement of Hope Solo by some of her "teammates" -- especially the team's "leaders" -- that does.

Frankly, it's good not only to have a foreign coach guiding the WNT but a female coach, as well. This has nothing to do with feminism or multiculturalism. It has everything to do with a fundamental change in mentality and approach that this team has sorely needed for a long time, as you point out.

I hope that means, among other things, that we've seen the last of Wambach, Lilly, Whitehill and Scurry in the national colors.

A.C. said...

I think what I really wanted has already happened, and that's where the national team is selected on merit and the expectation of professional behavior. No one will get chosen by Pia based on how popular they are, how much power they wield, or history they have or anything other than if they can do the job and work well with others.

Anonymous said...

whatever, I still think Hope Solo is a brat and I am in the minority of folks who disapproved what she did last summer in China. She's a great goalkeeper though.

A.C. said...

You certainly weren't in the minority last summer. A lot of people piled on Hope and slammed her for what she said. Remember Julie Foudy saying that, if she was still playing, she wouldn't want Solo in goal behind her?

Anonymous said...

AC - It's not just what she said. It's what she did. Playing fast and loose with the rules and then playing the victim cause her teammates are too nice to crucify her. And then you've got characters like Joe who want to make villains out of them when he has no idea what he's talking about. And of course the media has just let her slide because they are lazy and it's a "heart warming" story.

A.C. said...

Her teammates are too nice? Sure, instead of telling the press, "She was late to breakfast and we're pissed about that," it's "Let's ban her from the medal ceremony and send her home alone."

Because they're so nice.

It's ridiculous to call the media lazy when players decide to hide the truth and then act sanctimonious about it that the media hasn't dug in some dirty way to get it out. There's plenty of reporters who sided against Solo and would have been happy to report any valid beef her teammates had on her. The implication of something "rules broken" without actual information given is as crappy as calling the press lazy from the cover of an anonymous posting. As Joe and I are clear examples - there is a wide range of opinions by media members. You may disagree or agree with the press, but to say they're not working hard because they haven't discovered your little secret is bogus.

Anonymous said...

I am a bit surprised by how short-term some sportswriters' memories are. In the article you link to (and in several others I've seen since the Olympic gold), there is the suggestion that the USWNT played "long ball" soccer for "decades". This is true of the Wambach/Ryan era, but certainly not always. When Lilly and Foudy and Wagner (who is now back in the fold after Ryan is gone) we have had an excellent passing game as well. And, of course, excellent forwards in Hamm, Milbrett, and Akers, and I don't recall too many long balls sent to Hamm (I haven't watched the other two).

I agree that with Pia Sundhage, we now have possession as a philosophy much more than Ryan or Heinrichs instilled in the team, but to take credit away from DiCicco and Heinrichs and the excellent playes I mentioned above.

A.C. said...

It's been a long time since the era of DiCicco - nearly a decade, in fact. Heinrichs and Ryan didn't emphasize the possession style. It's a fair opinion to say that it's been a while since that was a priority.

Anonymous said...

AC - How much trouble have you gone to to get the scoop? You wrote an awful lot about it at the time.

A.C. said...

Oh, you're asking about my investigative efforts now, after you've branded all the media as lazy already?

JordanCornblog said...

I think it's unfortunate to bring this all up again (who behaved badly, who behaved worse, who should be drawn and quartered) unless there's new information to share. The redemptive script of this gold medal game, for the entire team, couldn't have been written better by Disney. I think we should enjoy it - and allow them to, as well.

I've always felt that there was more to the story than any of us were hearing. It could have been made public, but keeping it "within the team" was the choice of the major players (with the exception of Greg Ryan, who seemed willing to do or imply 'most anything to cover his butt).

But now, can we move on, please? I'm inclined to see even Greg as just a fallible human. Demonizing people the ways some are continuing to do here is just silly. It helps no one and it certainly doesn't move us any closer to the truth of the matter - which we may never, ever know.

Such is life. But in the meantime, what a wonderful, golden win - and what a great coach! And I like what Hope has said, reflecting on everything that has happened - and how she's become a better person as a result. What more could anyone want?

ghostwriter said...

Wow, it's like finding a previously thought extinct species...somebody who actually believes anything Greg Ryan said at any time after he starting trying to save his miserable dog stupid fanny after the worst personel move in all WWC history...

Anon, 8/22 at 2:48 I have this piece of land in Florida that I'll sell to you cheap...And if you think the press is lazy about a story with the legs this thing had, my friend, there are fine medications available these days for that condition.

On the main post, I absolutely agree. I love the changes Pia's brought to the team so far and look forward with great anticipation to what USWNT will look like under her continued guidance in 2011.

I'm not sure what portion of the main post d.s. believes suggests in anyway that Mia ,Julie, et al and the coaches of their era weren't great. But I think I heard somebody say once that it's a mistake to live in the past...

The team was not broken then, in case you missed that little part, and the rest of the World didn't play anywhere near as well as today, so gee, broken team, better competition? Are you suggesting no change was warranted or that Pia's not a change from recent history which is all that's at issue here?

Anonymous said...

AC - Just asking. Do you really think that 99% of the journalists that have reported on this story and are doing so now have even spoken to Solo or any of her team members about the matter? They are just recycling the early reports on this matter and have not bothered to find what the truth is but are reporting as if they know.

BTW, I don't need to take Greg Ryan's word for anything. However, just because he made some horrible decisions in the WC doesn't make him a liar.

amberbs said...

Another great post A.C. I really appreciate all the excellent coverage you give to the women's game.

Jospeph d'hippolito: After reading your comments on this and other websites I think you need to take a chill pill or seek psychological help. Yeah some crappy things happend to Solo and yeah she also did some crappy things, but she has gotten over it so maybe it is time that you did. She seemed to be enjoying herself with her teammates after the game celebrating, but yet again here you are with all your negativity. And you are demonstrating the very qualities you critize the NT leaders of possessing: a "sorority" type mindset where you stick up for your girl no matter what and damn everyone else.

I for one would welcome seeing Wambach, Lilly, or Whitehill play again. I also commend Scurry on a great career.

truth said...

Pia has been great and I agree that she was the perfect coach in this situation. And whoever called the previous regime the Wambach/Ryan era is dead wrong. It was the Heinrichs/Ryan era. Wambach had to will herself on the team -- without her performances in the WUSA Heinrichs would have left her off the team. Remember Ape calling Wambach a "bubble player." She wouldn't know talent if it kicked her in the shins.

I blame USSoccer and Dr. Bob Contiguglia for the women's woes for the last 9 years. Tony DiCicco recommended that his assistant Lauren Gregg succeed him after the 1999 World Cup triumph. Instead, April Heinrichs (who was a great player on the 1991 World Cup team) was Dr. Bob's pick for coach (she never even applied for the position, and said that she knew she wasn't ready yet) and she brought in Ryan and he was her tactician. I'll never forget being in Gillette Stadium for the US-Norway game in the 2003 World Cup and watching Ryan hand Ape his notes at half time. [We were shocked. Was she just a figurehead?] He was her tactician, and he believed that bootball was the modern game. And when Ape got fired, Dr. Bob insisted that Ryan get the job, though he was the least qualified of the five candidates considered.

So Pia has had to transform an entire player pool that has been playing ugly soccer for almost a decade. That she got as much possession and short passes out of this group was nothing short of amazing.

My final comment is that I wish people would stop saying players can't come back. While I thought Scurry should retire from the international game just due to the erosion of her skills, Kristine Lilly is still probably our most creative midfield player (we still tease my brother who proclaimed her "a little long in the tooth" before the 1999 World Cup), Wambach our indominatable striker, Whitehill a sturdy back, and Osborne a good mid. Why wouldn't we want all the players on either side of Ryan's mess to let the past be the past and concentrate on soccer? Let Pia judge them as soccer players, not on something we are all trying to leave behind.

Winners go forward.

Anonymous said...

amberbs - nicely stated

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

amberbs, I suggest you read the following story from Grant Wahl in Sports Illustrated:

As I've said ad infinitum et nauseum, Solo made her mistakes in the heat of the moment and under emotional duress. Her teammates' response was cold, calculating and conspiratorial. Worst of all, they allowed themselves to be exploited by a gross incompetent who thought of nothing but covering his sorry posterior.

If you want to know something about Wambach's "character," then read the following from Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Here's a salient point:

Other players, while horrified by the injury and dismayed to see a teammate's Olympic dream snuffed so suddenly, seemed almost enthusiastic to embrace the challenge of LWA: Life without Abby. They are losing one of the most prolific scorers in soccer, certainly, but they are also losing an abrasive, in-your-face, often overbearing persona – Wambach fully admits she is “loud” – that unintentionally may have suffocated the development of a post-Hamm generation of players.

“An oxygen vampire,” one person close to the team called her. “She walks in and sucks the air out of the room.”

Frankly, Sundhage would be stupid to allow Wambach, Whitehill, Scurry or even Lilly back on the team. It's time to build with new blood -- especially with the next Women's World Cup cycle three years away.