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.