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Heia Hege

In 2010, the words “Hege Riise” elicit much different responses from the U.S. players than they did from 1990-2004. Those were the years that Riise starred for the Norway when it was perhaps THE arch-rival of the U.S. Women’s National Team.

However, there is one word that transcends the generations when U.S. players refer to Riise: respect.

Back in the good old days, Riise’s play earned tremendous respect from the United States as she scored many a goal against the USA. She helped lead her country to a Women’s World Cup title in 1995 and an Olympic gold medal in 2000, going through the United States both times to reach to top of the podium. Back then, the U.S. players had little time for Hege the person. She was a weapon to be concerned about and neutralized.

Nowadays, she is a very well-liked and much-respected assistant coach to Pia Sundhage, and has seamlessly integrated herself with the U.S. team, becoming part of the WNT family.

It seems we can all get along.

“I always respected the way she played, so when she was going to come be our coach I was excited because I knew I would be able to learn a lot from her as a center midfielder,” said U.S. captain Shannon Boxx. “She’s very quiet, but when she speaks up it means a ton. I’ve gotten really used to going to her after games to talk about how the game went.”

Riise’s final game against the United States actually came at the Algarve Cup in 2004. Of course, she scored. But it was the lone goal for her country in the USA’s 4-1 victory in the championship game, a match in which Abby Wambach nabbed a hat trick.

A lot of factors, players and coaches go into winning and losing matches, but during Riise’s tenure with Norway, the USA went 16-16-2 against the Scandinavians. Since she retired, the USA has gone 6-1-0. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, but what is clear is that Riise added something to the Norwegian attack which they’ve struggled to replace, although Solveig Gulbrandsen and Ingvild Stensland have proved worthy heirs.

“I was a midfielder that loved the game,” said Riise, who played 188 times for her country and was named the best-ever Norwegian female player by the Norwegian Football Association in 2003. “I was good at reading the game and I was always looking for the final pass going forward. I had an attacking mindset and I don’t think I ever passed the ball backwards too much.”

Her game, like her name, had a very rhythmical quality to it. The sing-song way you pronounce it seems to fit: Heg-EH Ris-EH.

“She was exceptionally good at reading the game,” said U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, who laced up her cleats against Riise more than a few times. “She read the game in such a way that it was hard to defend even though she played so simple. For me, she was a center mid who could solve problems. It was hard to deal with her because even if you had some sort of game plan, she could figure it out.”

Riise played in four FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments (1991, 1995, 1999 and 2003), and scored the first goal in Norway’s 2-0 victory against Germany in the 1995 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final. She was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s top player, something only four other women on earth have earned; Carin Gabarra of the USA, Sun Wen of China, Birgit Prinz of Germany and Marta of Brazil. Not bad company for sure.

In looking back at her international career, Riise says she always enjoyed the matches against the United States.

“It was always fun to play against the best team in the world and we used to play the U.S. two or three times a year,” said Riise. “You knew it was going to be a good game and I think the U.S. games brought out the best in me.”

When she was offered the chance to work with Sundhage (a Swede, so yes, we REALLY are all getting along), she jumped at the opportunity. A relatively young coach, she joined the U.S. staff after coaching three seasons with Team Strømmen in the Toppserien, the Norwegian Premier League, with the first as a player-coach. She was also on Norway’s staff as an assistant coach for the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Chile.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time with Pia and the U.S. team,” said Riise. “I knew the great mentality of the team when I came in, but when you get into the group, you feel it more. You feel how much these players want to win.”

Riise herself has even enjoyed the thawing of what was once a tumultuous relationship in women’s soccer between her country and the United States.

“When you get to know people, you see how nice they are and that’s something I didn’t want in the days that I played,” said Risse. “I wanted to have that rivalry. Spending time with these players and coaches, they are really good people. They want to get better and that’s the best part of being the coach, having players come and ask questions or for me to give some ideas for my point of view.”

Even before joining the U.S. coaching staff, Riise was no stranger to the United States. She played two seasons for the Carolina Courage in the WUSA, earning team MVP honors in 2001 and 2002 seasons while leading the Courage to the league championship in 2002, before tearing her ACL three games into the 2003 campaign.

“I was kind of old when I joined the WUSA and those were some of my last years, so for me to have the inspiration and motivation to play, that was the best thing for me at the time,” said Riise. “The league was good and the speed of play was good and I developed as a player. I had a lot of fun.”

There is something that Riise can’t decide is fun or not, and that’s when the United States plays Norway. Last year at the Algarve Cup, one of her first matches on the U.S. bench was against the Norwegians, a slim 1-0 win for the Americans.

“It is weird,” admitted Riise. “I want Norway to be successful, but I want us to win. So they can play well, but I want us to play better. It’s strange before the game, you can’t sing the national anthem out loud, and you see that uniform on the other side, but once the match starts I am just focused on our team and our performance. One day I will get back to Norway, but right now I am really enjoying working with the U.S.”

At every Algarve Cup, Norway always has the biggest cheering section. It’s made up of tanned and vocal, flag-waving Norwegian senior citizens on vacation in Portugal who drive their RVs to every match, parking them outside the stadiums in one of the more unique tailgates you’ll ever see.

Inside the stadiums, they are constantly chanting “Heia Norge! Heia Norge!” (Go Norway!) and are often saluted by the Norwegian players after the match.

Perhaps, just once, when the USA plays Norway at the Algarve Cup, they just might bust out with a “Heia Hege!” for all she did for the soccer in their country.

But we doubt it. There’s still that rivalry, you know.