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U.S. WNT Head Coach Pia Sundhage Reveals What it's Like to Coach Olympic Gold Medalists

CHICAGO (Sept. 6, 2012) – U.S. WNT head coach Pia Sundhage spoke with about her experience during the journey to gold in London 2012 Olympics. Sundhage explains some of the difficult decisions she had to make as well as how she feels she helped the team simply “enjoy the moment.”

Sundhage announced Saturday, Sept. 1, that she is stepping down as head coach of the U.S. WNT. She is returning home to Sweden where she will coach the Women’s National Team. Under Sundhage’s leadership, the U.S. compiled an 89-6-10 record and won back-to-back Olympic gold medals. How did your style of play or philosophy change based on your opponents during the Olympics?
Pia Sundhage: Well I wouldn’t say that the philosophy changed at all. I stick with a philosophy. We have so many tools; the fact that we can keep possession, we can play direct. But I try to put myself in the other coaches’ shoes and see what she or he is trying to do. I try to look at their style and so forth. It’s more like tactical adjustments because that is very important at the highest level. The fact that you recognize their strength and more so their weakness. So then we would try to find their weakness and then look at our strength, but you have to pick and choose how much you talk about the opponents. The other thing is the starting lineup. That’s another tool you can change depending on who you play. What tactical adjustments did you make in some of the games?
PS: Well, if you look against Canada for instance, we played a 4-4-2, but we played more direct and we changed to a 3-4-3. In the final, we tried to keep possession. We had to because Japan played very well. So one thing we did was play a little more direct because if you look at Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, they are a threat even when it’s only two versus four or two versus three. We tried a little bit earlier to find those two up top compared to previous games.  At the end of the game we had the two center mids sitting in front of the two center backs, which was to protect a win. In the Canada game you switched the formation from a 4-4-2 to a 3-4-3 when you brought in Sydney Leroux. Why did you make that change?
PS: Before the Olympics, we learned a lot of things from the World Cup where Alex Morgan came off the bench. With Alex Morgan we had her in the starting line up at times, and she played 45 minutes at times, but we liked her. She helped the team much more by coming off the bench a little bit later.

So having experienced that, we did a similar thing with Sydney Leroux. We told them over and over again how important it is that some of you may start the game but there might be different players that end the game and everybody’s important. I usually tell the substitutes to play the game on the bench so you’re ready when you jump in the game. That was the message to the players so I think we created something that we could believe in. We had faith in our bench; not only the coaches, but the team as well. But you can’t do that only once, you need to train, you need to try it, and you need to do it over and over again. And that’s exactly what we did with Alex Morgan in 2011 and we did that a couple times with Sydney Leroux as well. On the bench there is an ongoing discussion. It’s all about timing, because I think with Alex Morgan and sometimes with Sydney Leroux as well, we brought them in too early. That’s something we had to figure out, the timing. During the World Cup and during the Olympics, I think we did our homework and figured out when to bring them in because that is very important as well. What was the coaching staff thinking and talking about when the team went down 2-0 to France after the first 14 minutes of the first game? Do you and your staff mentally prepare for those types of situations?
PS: Well, I’ve been there before. I think you start with reaction and body language. In 2008, we’d been winning and our first loss was the first game in the Olympics against Norway. A similar thing happened: we went down 1-0 two minutes into the game and 2-0 four minutes into the game. We lost that game and I think that is the difference between then and now. The fact that we gave up two goals, that’s something that happens. So what I wanted to do was to show with everything I could, with body language and everything else, to tell the team and the staff that I have faith in this team. We pushed and encouraged them to go forward. Take Kelly O’Hara for instance. Instead of being conservative and a little bit afraid of making mistakes, she should do the opposite. Just go for it. Now we have nothing to lose and there are so many minutes left. And they came back and that is the difference between 2008 and 2012. We couldn’t turn it around in 2008 but this year we could. The game against Canada was an exciting match. Did you have to refocus the team after that game since there was still one more match to play?
PS: Not really. I think it’s so important to enjoy the moment. I didn’t want to go too fast to the next game, to the final. We had talked about the final and everybody I think deep down inside wanted to win that gold medal when we started this journey. But we never talked, well not very often at least, about the gold medal. So here we are, we won the semifinal, and instead of rushing in to the next big challenge game, what everybody was looking forward to, rather stay in the moment and talk about how well we came back against Canada. Reflect on the game. I think that is very important whether you win or lose. You prepared so many hours; you look at details before the game. I really wanted to do the same thing when you analyze the game - emotionally, and tactically. Instead of just, ok, we made it, let’s go to the next game. I didn’t have to say well this is it, this is the final. Everybody knew this is the final, and they played Japan.  My job was to make sure they actually enjoyed the big win against Canada. And that balance, I think, worked out well. Considering the team came back in the Canada game three times, how would you characterize this current Women’s National Team?
PS: Find a way to win. I hear them say, we never give up. For me, it’s have faith in our ability. Each player she knows that she can do it and each player knows that the team is skillful enough to turn anything around. We’ve been scoring so many goals late in the game since I started in 2008. I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life, even when I played. But we’ve done it so many times. I remember in 2008 against Australia, a friendly game, we came back. There’s something to be said about the American attitude. I get that question very often: what is the American attitude? It’s hard to explain, but I would say, find a way to win and come back late in the game, and never give up. How would you say this Olympic team was different from the 2011 World Cup team?
PS: In 2008 I don’t think we had any stars because Abby, well she broke her leg. In 2011, we created stars. The team created stars. Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, and even Megan Rapinoe had very good games. And a young player like Cheney, she played better and better and Alex Morgan scored important goals. Now it’s one thing to do that, but do that the next year again. And the expectations were so much higher. I would say the combination of the two up top; I think that’s a big difference. Those two up top, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, they play off each other. You can tell that they want to play with each other. And if Alex scored, Abby was as happy as could be and vice versa. So regardless of who scored, I think that they felt that wow, we did it. The other thing is we had so many options out wide. We played Tobin Heath. I’ve been around her since 2008 and she’s never been in the starting line up as many times as she has been in 2012. It’s incredible how she has improved her game since 2008. I think it’s the best part of coaching the USA. Being around young players and seeing how they grow. Compared to 2008, we had wing players that could change. You look at Heather O’Reilly, how she came off the bench in the semifinal for instance. I think that is the biggest difference from 2008. You had some difficult lineup choices to make throughout the tournament. For example, Carli Lloyd went from being a sub to starting in the championship game and scoring some very important goals. Looking back, would you have changed any of your decisions?
PS: No. Every time we discuss a starting lineup, you learn a little bit about yourself and about your staff and the players. And I think at the end of the day I think we did well. I’m really happy and proud of Carli Lloyd. But I do think that we made the right decision. Lauren Cheney and Shannon Boxx played better than Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx before the Olympics.  So, little by little, we prepared Carli and took her off and all of a sudden she wasn’t in the starting lineup. I talked to her constantly and described what I wanted to see and what she thought she needed to do to get in the starting lineup again. We told her that we needed three center mids in the Olympics. And she did her homework. She was prepared when she jumped in and she was one of the best players in the Olympics and I am very thankful for that.