It was only fitting that the Pia Sundhage Era of American women’s soccer ended Wednesday night with a win and a few songs. She is, after all, the quirky, lovable coach who was known to burst into song in the locker room, the team bus — and even at news conferences. Who can forget her wonderful rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) at a news conference during the 2011 Women’s World Cup?
Last weekend, after her penultimate game as U.S. national coach, the team presented her with a guitar autographed by all the players. She proceeded to delight the Home Depot Center crowd in Carson, Calif., with a few bars from Jailhouse Rock.
Sundhage is heading home to coach the Swedish national team after compiling a 91-6-10 record in five years as U.S. coach. She led the team to its first World Cup final in 12 years and two Olympic gold medals. She also did a marvelous job of quelling locker-room strife and keeping drama to a minimum. When she took over the team in 2007, the United States had just lost in the World Cup semis to Brazil and goalkeeper Hope Solo had been sent home by then-coach Greg Ryan for making public statements criticizing his decision to start Briana Scurry over her.
Enter Sundhage, a Swedish legend as a player. Her passion for the game, positive outlook and easy-going style won the team over. She also was able to implement more technique and flair to a team that got used to relying on size, strength and work ethic. Her love of music also proved to be a plus, and she kept on singing until the end.
Before Wednesday’s final game, Sundhage told her players to lie on the locker room floor and close their eyes. She wanted to sing them some farewell tunes. She pulled out her new guitar and serenaded them with Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, If Not for You, by Dylan and later covered by George Harrison, and, the real tear-jerker, John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane. After the game, a 6-2 win over Australia, she ran a victory lap as 20,000-plus fans cheered her on at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver. The players sang You Are My Sunshine to her, and she was overcome with emotion. Sundhage composed herself enough pay tribute to her team with a few lines from Tina Turner’s Simply the Best.
Sadly, the exhibition game was at 10 p.m. EDT and did not get as much media attention as it deserved. If an NFL or NBA coach had Sundhage’s personality, record and had serenaded his team upon his departure, surely that would have been featured on every evening sports newscast.
The players said they were determined to send her off with a win.
“Today is Pia’s day,” Abby Wambach said after the match. “We’ve been talking about it all day: What can we do to show her? She’s a passionate woman about this game. We knew the best thing we could do was give her a win."
Wambach said she had “no idea” what to expect when Sundhage took over five years ago.
“When a coach comes in and you don’t know who they are and they start singing songs for you, you’re like ‘what is this going to be?’ and thankfully it went well,” she said. “I’m really proud of the way this team handles this increased fame, but is still capable of shining the spotlight on the person that deserves it the most right now, and that’s Pia.”
Forward Alex Morgan credited Sundhage with getting her to this point in her career, and said she changed the U.S. players’ approach to the game.
“Pia believed in me from Day One,” Morgan said. “She gave me my first cap [national team invitation] and helped me grow on this team and take baby steps to be the player that I’ve become. She never pushed me along into a different position or forced me to do anything. It was always letting my play on the field how I wanted to play and her guiding me a little bit here and there. I’ll always appreciate that.”
Sundhage wiped her tears as the crowd chanted her name Wednesday night.
“It’s unreal. I come from a small town in Sweden where I wasn’t supposed to play soccer because girls didn’t play soccer. Now, here I am standing in front of a great crowd and hearing my named shouted. It’s a dream. I’m living a dream.”
She said she’ll most remember the American never-say-die attitude.
“Soccer players with an American attitude of never give up and there’s always a way to win,” she said. “We’ve come back so many times in many games since 2008 and it is contagious. I’ve got a little bit of that winning attitude. I’m very grateful for everything they’ve done for me and I think I’m a much better coach today than I was five years ago.”
U.S. soccer federation president Sunil Gulati said a search committee has been assembled — including U.S. team legend Mia Hamm — and a replacement could be hired as early as next month. No word on whether musical talent is a prerequisite.
• Meet Ken Arena: New FIU men’s soccer coach Ken (Son of Bruce) Arena ( Bruce’s son) and his staff would like to meet FIU alumni and the South Florida soccer community, so they are hosting a “Meet the FIU Coaches” event from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 7 at Woody’s West End Tavern in Miami Springs (600 Payne Dr.) Admission is $20 and includes hors d’oeuvres and beer. The Manchester United-Newcastle match will be shown, and FIU’s 1982 national championship team will be honored.
Information: call Boomer Bray 305-496-7171.
• Local events: The 2012 Pro Footvolley Tour makes a stop in Deerfield Beach this weekend. Think beach volleyball with a soccer ball and no hands. … The Miami Soccer Festival will be held Sept. 29-30 at Kendall Soccer Park (8011 SW 127 Ave). All-comers tournament for ages five and up, kid zone, food, entertainment.