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By Ramona Shelburne
They've known for a while now this was coming. Or at least sensed it. This wasn't a forever relationship. They'd have to say goodbye.
U.S. women's soccer coach Pia Sundhage would go home to Sweden one day. She would move on and the U.S. national team would have to, too. This run they've been on together, this run that has resurrected the sport in this country and turned the players on this team into superstars and role models, it would end when the Swedish-born coach decided it was time to go home.
But when the day came Wednesday, star forward Abby Wambach was at a loss.
"We've been talking about it all day," Wambach said. "What can we do to show her?"
Show her what she had meant to them? To the sport? To the millions of fans across the country who joined in the magical Olympic gold-medal runs in 2008 and 2012 and a runner-up finish at the 2011 Women's World Cup?
"We thought about it," Wambach said. "And we knew the best thing we could do was get her a win."
And oh-so-fittingly, the United States dominated a young Australian squad, scoring five unanswered goals to finish with an emphatic 6-2 victory in Sundhage's last game with the team.
Keep reading for more on Pia's goodbye.
The win in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd of more than 20,000 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park gave Sundhage one last bow at the end of the most successful coaching run in women's soccer history.
The coach who began her tenure singing songs to a team in disarray following a disappointing third-place showing at the 2007 World Cup, ended it by taking an impromptu victory lap around the stadium while her team serenaded her with "You Are My Sunshine."
"I took a chance," Sundhage said of her lap around the pitch. "I wanted to do it."
It was the perfect end to a nearly perfect run. Because for the last five years, that's exactly what Sundhage has been: Sunshine.
She came in when skies were gray following the ugly end to the 2007 World Cup, when goalkeeper Hope Solo was sent home for making disparaging remarks about then-coach Greg Ryan's decision to start veteran Briana Scurry over her in the semifinals.
And she very quickly made them happy with a positive, laid-back approach that helped transform American soccer, both tactically and spiritually.
The American game became more sophisticated under Sundhage. Bigger, stronger, fitter and faster were replaced by smarter, slicker, quicker and craftier. Players like star forward Alex Morgan and midfielders Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Lauren Cheney and Megan Rapinoe, who excelled at possessing the ball and creating chances with their skill and smarts, became featured options.
"She never pushed me into another position, or forced me to do anything," said Morgan, who scored two goals and assisted on two others Wednesday night. "She let me play on the field how I wanted to play and then guided me along here and there.
"Pia's very positive. If you ask her to pull up clips of when you didn't succeed or parts you should've improved on, she'll say, 'Why don't you talk to another coach about that?' She wants to pull out the positive. She shows us all the goals we score in pregame meetings. She wants us to have that confidence always."
After its epic gold-medal run at the London Olympics, the U.S. team is brimming with confidence. Wednesday night's game was the third stop on a 10-game fan appreciation tour that continues against Germany in Chicago on Oct. 20.
Sundhage will be back in Sweden by then, taking over as national team coach on Dec. 1. She hopes to lead her country to victory at the European Championships next year in Sweden.
Continue reading How do you say goodbye to Pia Sundhage? on espnW.com.
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