Author Topic: U.S. soccer team singing new tune  (Read 793 times)

Offline David

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U.S. soccer team singing new tune
« on: April 27, 2008, 11:20:58 AM »
Coach's attitude has changed outlook for women's national soccer squad

U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, facing, has changed the team's style of play and mind-set since taking over in November.

Upon addressing the U.S. women's soccer team for the first time last December, new coach Pia Sundhage, a native of Sweden, searched desperately for the right words to communicate her message of change.

Pressed to deliver something invigorating and memorable, the eyes of players glued on her, she burst into song, choosing a familiar tune no one in the room would misunderstand.

"I couldn't find the English words so I sang, 'The Times They Are A-Changin'," Sundhage said of the famous Bob Dylan tune she used to express her feelings.

Six months later, the title of that classic song could not apply more aptly to the women's team, which finds itself steeped in change just four months before it plays in the first round of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

Today, the women's national team comes to WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary for a friendly with Australia's Women's National Team. The U.S. is playing on American soil for the first time this year. The match starts at 7 p.m.

Last week the U.S. team (10-0-1) practiced in the Triangle, revealing its new coach, new possession style of play and renewed mind-set. An aura of happiness and confidence permeated the workouts, replacing the swirling clouds of discontent that seemed to pervade the team's every step not long ago.

"Through the course of the past few months, we learned a lot about ourselves and definitely our new style of play," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. "So it's going to be exciting. We just hope the reception is as good as we feel about playing at home."

Last September, the women were the world's top team, boasting an unbeaten record dating back to 2004. They fell 4-0 to Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup and finished in third place.

The loss came as a slap to a team that had enjoyed years of steamrolling opponents and escalated fame cultivated by stars such as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain.

But those iconic names were gone, retired after their team won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Left were the new faces of the women's team, mixed with a few veterans such as goalkeeper Briana Scurry and midfielder Kristine Lilly.

Coached by Greg Ryan, the 2007 team found itself playing improved international competition and floundered. Ryan's decision to bench goalkeeper Hope Solo for Scurry touched off internal controversy.

Solo publically criticized the decision, drawing the ire of some teammates.

But players say the air has since cleared.

In stepped Sundhage, 48, who last November was brought in to replace Ryan. She is the sixth coach of the national team and the first non-American to assume the head position.

A legendary international player for Sweden and former assistant coach for the Chinese national team, Sundhage brings experience, an affable persona and a genuine spirit that some players say has rejuvenated the team like a Swedish masseuse.

Not afraid to sing in front of a crowd, Sundhage is confident enough to accompany her vocals with an Aria acoustic guitar.

At practice, dressed as if she may call herself off the bench, she appears loose, laughing at near-misses and applauding well-executed connections.

"Fun is contagious," Sundhage said.

Former North Carolina standout forward Heather O'Reilly said that attitude has certainly endeared the team to Sundhage. They revel in her enthusiasm.

"She's a soccer nut," O'Reilly said. "She loves the game so much and that just totally rubs off on us."

Yet former UNC defender Cat Whitehill said it wasn't simply the injection of Sundhage that has provided the club a boost.

"All of us changed our mind-set," she said. "We do remember what happened to us in the World Cup. We want to do better than that. We want to come back from that and show people we can play soccer."

This time, the U.S. team hopes to win with its new possession style of play, a European-influenced edict ordered by Sundhage, who said it is important for the team to dictate the tempo.

She continues to tweak the lineup to ensure this possession style is successful, most notably switching the speedy O'Reilly from forward to midfield, where she can attack on the right wing, facing the goal.

This is sure to create a match-up problem for opponents and allow the team to establish better sets for Wambach out front.

Sundhage said zooming around in the heat of the Olympics, constantly attacking, does not make sense. She said changing the attack and finding combinations is a smarter strategy.

Players agreed, recalling a time when the U.S. team played possession more, even though it wasn't the team's primary style.

"For the best teams in the world, you have to be able to possess," Wambach said. "You have to keep the ball more than the other team, and we kind of lost sight of that. It was more about winning the game and scoring that big goal than it was about winning in the right way."

Added Whitehill: "When you really work on it and you're doing combination plays -- one-two, passing around people and dynamic moves -- it can be really exciting for people to watch."

http://www.newsobserver.com/sports/story/1051572.html