Change for the better: Sundhage transforms US team

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“There was a lot that went on in the ‘07 World Cup,” Carli Lloyd said. “We needed something, we kind of needed to start fresh.”

The Americans were favorites to win in China, carrying a 51-game unbeaten streak into the semifinals against Brazil. But Ryan made the surprise decision to start Briana Scurry against Brazil instead of Solo, who had a shutout streak of nearly 300 minutes going and had started all but four of the Americans’ 19 games that season.

The move was a disaster, a 4-0 loss that was the worst defeat in U.S. history. Afterward, Solo ripped Ryan’s decision, saying, “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that.”

Ryan dismissed Solo from the team, not allowing her on the bench for the third-place game. She even had to fly home from China on her own.

The Americans managed to win the bronze medal, but the damage was done. A month later, Ryan was essentially fired, told his contract would not be renewed when it expired in December.

“I don’t expect them to forget what happened _ and I got different kinds of stories of what happened _ but I expect them to forgive,” Sundhage said. “When I came, I said, ‘We need goalkeepers.’ So we had three goalkeepers. Then we said, ‘I want to win, do you want to win? Yes. Then you have to do this together. It will be impossible if you have something in the group that’s not 100 percent. You have to do it together and be respectful.’ We moved on.”

Sundhage did not force her players to be nice to each other, that’s not her way. But she asked questions and listened to the answers, not judging one way or the other. That air of civility extended to practices and team meetings, where Sundhage refused to be negative or harsh, choosing instead to focus on what her team was doing well.

For Solo, the unconditional support was rejuvenating.

“I don’t know if I could have made it back in ‘08 without her,” Solo said. “Every day after training, Pia would walk up to me and she’d be like, ‘Hope, how you doing today?’ I faked it. I was like, ‘I’m fine.’ Next day, same thing, ‘I’m fine.’ I remember one breakthrough day, I was like, ‘I’m OK Pia.’ She was like, `It’s kind of tough, huh? Hang in there.’”

“I knew she asked me every day because she saw I was struggling,” Solo said. “She wasn’t pushing me to talk. But she put her hand out and was ready to help me through it when I was ready. It was nice. I needed somebody with that patience.”

Solo’s presence was critical for the Americans in Beijing, particularly after the U.S. lost leading scorer Abby Wambach to a broken leg in the final warm-up game. She came up with one big stop after another in the gold-medal game against old nemesis Brazil before Lloyd scored in the sixth minute of extra time for the 1-0 victory.

It was the second straight gold medal for the Americans, and third overall.

With the Olympics over, Sundhage was free to reshape the team. She brought in new and younger players. And she began replacing the physical, forward-based attack the U.S. had used for years with a more European, possession-oriented game where plays are created through the midfield. Teams around the world were improving, and the Americans needed to be less predictable.

“I was always saying the States played a little too direct,” Sundhage said. “They’ve been very, very successful, don’t get me wrong. So I wanted to change that, but it couldn’t be too big of a change. With a successful team, you can’t change too much.”

The style she envisions is similar to the one perfected by Barcelona. When it works, it can frustrate opponents like nothing else.

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