The Ultimate Multi-tasker
Aug. 21, 2009
U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Pia Sundhage has often called team captain Christie Rampone her coach on the field.
Turns out, Sundhage was onto something.
In one of the most remarkable stories in the short history of women’s professional soccer in the United States, the figurative became literal as Rampone took over as head coach of Sky Blue FC with two games left in the regular season, adding that title to her previous titles as “captain” and, of course, “player.” Moreover, she has led Sky Blue to the championship game by winning two consecutive matches on the road, something it had not done all season.
“My goal when I took over was to get the girls to enjoy it,” said Rampone, who perhaps more than anyone was ready for such an undertaking. She’s used to juggling responsibilities, having traveled with her almost 4-year-old daughter Rylie to numerous destinations throughout the U.S. and the world. She played multiple sports growing up, starred in basketball and soccer in college and her father is a long time basketball, track and baseball coach in New Jersey. “I wanted to get their passion for soccer going and do what they love to do. There’s no need to stress or have too much pressure on themselves. They are professional athletes. We are fit enough and played-in enough and with two weeks left in the season, just go out and enjoy it. I put people in their comfort positions and I want these players to have the experience and be able to have great memories from this. It was a tough season for us, but we earned it. We battled back and played two great playoff games.”
To say Sky Blue has been through a “tumultuous” inaugural WPS campaign is like saying that Jon has taken some "criticism" from Kate. Not one, but two controversial coaching changes during the season mired Sky Blue in an oil slick of reality TV-like drama and soccer uncertainty.
Enter Rampone. If this team needed some tower-like stability, it got the Eiffel Tower.
“I think for me it’s just been about taking it day-by-day, and not getting myself overwhelmed, or watching too much film or stressing too much about decisions, I’ve just trusted my instincts,” said Rampone. “I’ve known these girls for a long time and I know all their strengths and putting them in a comfort position is what I’ve chosen to do. We are putting players in their natural positions and letting them dictate the game. I’ve tweaked a few little things, but at the end of the day, I don’t think [being player-coach] has been too much harder. Obviously, I’ve only been doing it for three weeks. If you put a full season ahead of me, then I would definitely say the off-the-field part would be more difficult. But managing on the field when you are a playing is a little bit easier. You can really get the pulse of the team. I know what their legs are feeling like and I know the mental side. That part is easy for me. It’s more about managing time so I am not focusing too much on coaching that I lose my focus on my role as a player as well.”
The 13-year veteran of the U.S. Women’s National Team is fifth all-time in caps at 216. She has been captain of the U.S. team since the start of 2008. She was named player-coach for New Jersey on July 29 with the club needing two wins to secure a berth in the WPS Playoffs. She brought on her long-time trainer Mike Lyons to handle the bench duties and the duo got its first win with a dominating 2-0 victory at home over FC Gold Pride on Aug. 5. With a win in the final game of the regular season assuring Sky Blue of a playoff spot, the New Jersey brigade traveled to Maryland to face the Washington Freedom and were promptly dispatched by a 3-1 score.
Still, there was life. If the Boston Breakers couldn’t beat the Los Angeles Sol on Aug. 6, New Jersey would earn the fourth and final playoff spot. The result: LA 2, Boston 1. That sent Sky Blue back to Washington for the first round of the playoffs a week after getting pummeled. This time Rampone’s troops did the pummeling, winning 2-1 to send them to the Super Semifinal against St. Louis.
“I didn’t hesitate,” said Rampone thinking back to when she was asked to take over the head coaching duties. “I saw the shock in everybody’s eyes. The team was at just a standstill and I knew that bringing in another head coach at that time would be devastating to the team because the coach wouldn’t really know the players. With the team still in playoff contention, I just thought the natural thing to do was take over with the help of Mike Lyons. I knew he was available and I knew it would be a good fit for the team heading into the last two games of the season. Mike had been at a lot of the games and so he knew the players and their personalities. I just didn’t think the players deserved to go backwards being so close to the playoffs.”
With Rampone at the helm, full credit goes to a Sky Blue team that came together in amazing fashion to show just how much a players’ game this is. Despite a Herculean effort from Athletica goalkeeper Hope Solo in the Super Semifinal, Sky Blue emerged with a much-deserved 1-0 victory on defender Keeley Dowling’s first goal of the year.
“It’s been as smooth as it possibly could be,” said Dowling of the Rampone’s transition to player-coach. “Obviously, we’ve had a rough year as far as the different changes, but everybody has always looked up to her as a person and a player for all her experience. Everyone respects her a ton and it’s been great to have that on the field, which has pretty much been that way the whole season, but then also at practice where she demands a lot. We want to do the best for her and for each other.”
“I think that Christie has taken it all in stride,” said midfielder Heather O’Reilly, Rampone’s teammate on the Sky Blue and the U.S. Women’s National Team. “She’s been very composed with everything that’s been thrown at her. I’ve always had so much respect for Christie in the past and it’s only grown seeing her take up this challenge. When this all happened I told her that I knew she would have a lot of distractions, but my best advice was that as a leader she could keep doing what she was doing on the field. I didn’t want her to be thinking so much about being our coach that she lost those fantastic qualities on the field. She did that and she is leading us on and off the field to the championship game.”
Now, Brazilian dribbling dynamo Marta and the Los Angeles Sol await in a clash for the WPS title on Saturday, Aug. 22 at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. (12:30 p.m. PT on Fox Soccer Channel). The Sol pretty much ran roughshod over the rest of the league to wrap up the regular season title and a berth in the championship game in late July. The Sol is surely a heavy favorite to defeat the upstart Sky Blue which will be playing their third game on the road in eight days.
“We got some luck on our side (to get into the playoffs) and since then we’ve been on a mission to take it one game at a time and prove to this league that we can play,” said O’Reilly. “I don’t think we’ve earned or received the kind of respect we deserve until now and we are so focused on winning one more game.”
In looking back at this story with its amazing twists and turns, it certainly would be unwise to count out Rampone and her players, who have overcome adversity that would have surely derailed a team of lesser character. That, as they say, is why they play the games.
“We put a lot minutes on the field, but I think at the same time, we have good momentum going,” said Rampone. “We’ve been battling and we have tired legs, but we have to be mindful and approach the game right tactically. We know the Sol is a great team, but at the same time, the momentum of our team and the way we are playing and persevering through everything gives us a lot of strength. We have the right mental state to bring to the final.”
With the WPS Final set to kick off under the bright Los Angeles sunshine after so many dark days this season in New Jersey, it’s only appropriate that the last words would go to the coach.
“The team has made a good shift of just supporting each other through all the rough times,” said Rampone. “It’s really showing through these playoffs. Everyone has everyone’s back out there. Just like anything, you are going to make mistakes, there’s going to be pressure, you are going to have tired legs, but knowing your teammates are going to be supporting you and right behind you gives you that much more of an edge out there. It’s going to take the whole entire team to win a championship and we’ve done well so far. At the end of the day, you can’t control what’s off the field, all we can control is what’s on the field and that’s giving 100 percent and being mentally ready for anything that comes at us. Everyone buys into the game plan and it shows on the field. That’s what gets you victories.”