- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2011

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY (AP) - Pia Sundhage came into the first meeting with her new team, pulled out her guitar and began playing the Bob Dylan classic, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

“Admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone,” she sang. “If your time to you is worth savin’ then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.

With that, Sundhage let the Americans know she’d be a coach unlike any other they’d had.

That’s definitely been true _ and it goes beyond Sundhage’s performing skills and foreign passport. She has built players up with constructive criticism rather than breaking them down by yelling and screaming. She has modified the style of play that had brought the U.S. success for so many years so the Americans can stay at the top of the game as the rest of the world improves.

Most importantly, she found a way to heal the bitterness and hard feelings that threatened to destroy the Americans following their ugly exit from the 2007 World Cup just a few months before she took over.

“She was everything we needed,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose criticism of then-coach Greg Ryan was the flashpoint for the World Cup turmoil. “At that point in time, it almost didn’t matter who came in because we needed somebody to lead us and we needed somebody to believe in. Our team was broken, we were down and out, there were a lot of fires to be put out, and she happened to be perfect person because she could lead us.”

With a spot in the quarterfinals already secured, the U.S. women wrap up group play Wednesday against Sundhage’s native Sweden at the Women’s World Cup.

Though Sundhage is nonplussed at the prospect of facing her home country (“For me, it’s not Sweden. It’s just a team.”) the game will put the spotlight squarely on the woman whose intelligence, confidence and unflinching optimism has transformed a fractured team into Olympic gold medalists and, just maybe, World Cup champions for a third time.

“Everything that we had hoped for in making the decision to hire her, she’s lived up to,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said.

Sundhage is considered one of the greatest players the women’s game has ever had, scoring 71 goals in a 22-year international career. She, not Mia Hamm or Birgit Prinz or Marta, is still the face of women’s soccer in Sweden, which she led to the title at the first European Women’s Championship in 1984 and the bronze medal at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. She remains so celebrated in Sweden that her name was floated as a possible coach of the men’s team after it failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

She was considered for the U.S. job when Ryan was hired in 2005, but didn’t have enough head coaching experience. Though Sundhage coached the Boston Breakers in 2003 before the WUSA folded, most of her experience was with Sweden’s youth teams.

When the Americans were in the market for a coach again two years later, Sundhage’s name topped the list.

“She still didn’t have a lot of experience as a head coach at the top level. But she obviously had a great understanding of the game,” Gulati said. “We asked her if she couldn’t be the head coach of the women’s national team if she’d be willing to take another role. She was quite firm in her answer, which was no. That both surprised and impressed me, frankly. Because she hadn’t been a head coach at that level, but was very confident in her ability and thought the time was right for her.”

Though Sundhage had told Gulati she wanted to retool the U.S. style, that would have to wait. The Beijing Olympics were just eight months away when she was hired in November 2007, and the tournament is second only to the World Cup in importance in the women’s game.

First, though, Sundhage had to address the tensions still simmering from the World Cup.

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