WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Pia Sundhage may be exactly what the United States women's national team needs.
The Sweden head coach met the press on Wednesday and tried to walk back some of her more incendiary comments about the USA players she once led. Some of what Sundhage said probably made it better, some probably made it worse, but all of it can provide a rallying point for a group of Americans who might thrive from the extra motivation.
Sundhage, who led the U.S. to two gold medals and a World Cup final while in charge from 2008 to 2012, was most convincing on Abby Wambach. She told the New York Times back in April that she would play the American legend as a substitute if she were still the coach, and on Wednesday she explained, "I would make sure that Abby would last forever and forever. I'd have her in the back of my pocket and throw her in there and win the game."
She then said she would start Wambach on Friday because "she's that good."
Although that was about as good a save as any goalkeeper could make, Sundhage's comments about Hope Solo weren't as convincing. The Swedish coach said the goalie is "a piece of work" but quickly added that it was "a good thing." She went on to explain that Solo was the best goalie in the world and even though "things happen around her" it hasn't diminished her greatness. "Why wouldn't you try to make her happy?" she offered.
Most people know Solo is the world's best at what she does. But this is not the best week to call her "a piece of work." And it's certainly not the best week to call that trait "a good thing."
This is all either master gamesmanship on Sundhage's part or a desperate effort to pave over a pothole in a relationship. Truly, though, it doesn't matter for the purposes of the match at hand. As former national team player Heather Mitts said on FOX, "The damage is done." Sundhage called some of the players out, and now is their chance to react by putting Sweden on the brink of elimination. Carli Lloyd, who was criticized by Sundhage in the New York Times story for being "a challenge to coach," told Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, "I plan to respond on the field."
Friday is the ultimate chance to respond on the field, both to Sundhage and to those who are wondering about head coach Jill Ellis as a tactician. The U.S. didn't play that well on Monday in a win over Australia, and that could be attributed to nerves or a general lethargy in the attack. We should find out the real reason in the match against Sweden, as the nerves will be gone and the Swedes will probably allow the Americans to move the ball better than the Australians did.
Sundhage, for all her creativity on offense, isn't quite as dominating when it comes to defensive schemes, and that showed Monday when Sweden went up 2-0 and still wound up drawing in its opener with a Nigerian side that was somehow able to force the play and leave the Swedes scrambling.
If Sweden plays like that on Friday, the Americans will almost surely answer with a rash of goals and leave the Sundhage topic behind while they travel to Vancouver this weekend. The U.S. has plenty of pieces, both older (Wambach) and new (Christen Press) and Friday is a perfect chance for all of them to fit together. It's not like there is a need for motivation – it's the World Cup, after all – but there may be a need for galvanization. Sundhage's comments may have provided just that.
A loss on Friday, however, would open up all kinds of avenues for criticism. It's understandable that the Americans would look slow in a sendoff game against South Korea after a long week of media obligations in New York, and it's understandable that the team would start anxiously in its first tournament game. But three subpar performances in a row just don't get explained away – especially considering the U.S. may have more talent than any other side in the World Cup.
Friday brings the Americans a chance for a statement – "bragging rights," as defender Meghan Klingenberg called it – and a chance to show the newly built whole of the team is indeed greater than the sum of all its strong parts. The crowd of American fans will be quite loud, but the opportunity is there for the U.S. to render the critics quite quiet.