LINKOPING, Sweden — When Pia Sundhage left the United States women’s soccer team in 2012 to become the coach of Sweden’s national team, U.S. Soccer’s news release said she was “returning home” to pursue opportunities. Most news media reports highlighted how she could not turn down the opportunity to lead her homeland’s team. Even Sundhage mentioned this notion of a homecoming to the American players when she told them the news, before serenading them with “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
But home is a relative concept to Sundhage. Yes, she was born in Sweden. Yes, she is now coaching in Sweden. And yes, this job allows her more time with her family, including her sister, Ingalill, an equestrian who has been teaching her how to ride a horse.
Yet Sundhage, 55, has always been a wanderer, always been uncomfortable sitting still. Even now, as she prepares to lead her team into the Women’s World Cup — where she will face the United States in a group-stage game Friday — Sundhage is thinking about her next step. A return to club soccer is most likely, she said, and she did not rule out trying to work as the coach of a men’s team, or, for that matter, taking another job in the United States.
“Life is easy for me now, that is for sure,” she said over lunch before scouting a women’s Champions League game in this small city in southern Sweden in the spring. “But I cannot stay. I am already thinking about 2016, and where to go next.”
She laughed. “When I was with the U.S.A., some of the players would complain about how much time we spent in hotels. I never understood it. I love living in hotels; everything is taken care of, and you spend your entire day on football. This is perfect.”
Soccer has been the central focus of Sundhage’s life for nearly four decades, covering her time as a player (for six clubs) and as a coach (for teams in Sweden, the United States and China). In conversation, she refers regularly to “2-times-45 minutes,” which is both the length of a regulation soccer game and the unit of measurement Sundhage admits she most often thinks about.
She is, and always has been, an on-the-field manager above all else. The tangential parts of the job bore her: She has little inclination to work on developing young talent for a club or national team program (she candidly acknowledged as much in her interviews with U.S. Soccer before being hired), and she similarly has no interest in learning about her players’ lives away from the field.
While many coaches want to develop close relationships with their players, Sundhage said bluntly that she had found little upside in doing so.
“You know, I talk to them about their mom, their dad, their boyfriend, their girlfriend or whatever, and you know what? It goes in one ear and out the other,” she said. “I try. I really try. I remember I sat with Amy Rodriguez for a long time once, talking and talking, and still I don’t know her family.”
Sundhage wrinkled her forehead as she thought for a moment about Rodriguez, the American forward. “She’s married. … I think?” she said. “I read about it maybe.”
She shrugged. Whether she has made friends with her players, her results are difficult to dispute: She won gold medals with the United States at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and led her team to the final of the 2011 World Cup before losing to Japan in a penalty shootout.
In the quarterfinals of that World Cup, against Brazil, the United States had a player sent off and Sundhage eschewed the traditional tactic of playing a 4-4-1 formation for the rest of the game, choosing instead to play with just three defenders despite facing a three-forward attack that included Marta, who at the time was the five-time world player of the year.
“From a tactical standpoint, it was the best decision of my soccer life,” Sundhage said. “Who else would have done it?”
The United States went on to tie the score with seconds remaining in extra time and win, 5-3 in a shootout, in one of the most memorable of Sundhage’s 91 victories with the Americans. In 107 games as their coach, she lost only six times.
Along the way, she honed her coaching style, both in terms of tactics and motivation. Megan Rapinoe, an American midfielder, described Sundhage’s approach as “equally laid-back and anal,” a characterization with which Sundhage does not altogether disagree. She laughs freely — “We still talk about her big goofy laugh,” Rapinoe added — and alternates quirky encouragement techniques (her singing has been frequently chronicled) with pointed analysis or criticism.
“Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach, by the way,” Sundhage said offhandedly at one point, her fork dangling as she considered Lloyd, who is a top midfielder for the United States. “When she felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players. But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst.”
She took a bite of salad. “It was so delicate, so, so delicate,” she said.
Sundhage did not hesitate to offer opinions on her other players as well, explaining that she was sharing nothing more than she had told the players themselves. Christie Rampone was “probably the best captain I’ve ever seen, including myself,” she said. Hope Solo, whose various off-field disciplinary issues lingered over the run-up to the World Cup, and burst into the open again this week, was one of the most challenging players Sundhage has ever coached, “especially when it comes to trouble,” she said. And Abby Wambach, 35, who is playing in her fourth World Cup, would not be a starter if Sundhage still coached the team.
“I said that to Abby,” she recalled. “I told her: ‘If I stayed, you would be a sub. The best sub ever. But a sub.’ There was no question about that in my mind.”
With Sweden, Sundhage has remained largely the same. After a practice session at the Algarve Cup in March, she was leading the players on a cool-down lap around the field when she suddenly demanded that everyone join her in running with their arms out, as if they were airplanes. She has also continued to sing to her players, even though Caroline Seger, one of Sweden’s veteran midfielders, said that when Sundhage broke into song at the team’s first meeting after her hiring, the players simply stared at her once she finished.
“I think in America, when she sang, they would cheer for her,” Seger said. “But we are more laid-back. So it must be completely different for her to sing to us, because we just sort of sit there.”
Seger paused. “I am not sure if she is trying to change us, but I think that might be good for us,” she said. “Swedish people are a bit closed. And she is the opposite.”
Sundhage has also continued to be candid, even if it is not necessarily the norm. Before the 2013 European Championships (which were hosted by Sweden), she put significant pressure on the star forward Lotta Schelin by telling the Swedish news media that the only way for Sweden to have success at the tournament was if Schelin scored a smattering of goals.
“The reporters were surprised; usually coaches don’t say things like that because over here it’s about the team,” Sundhage explained. “But it was the truth, and I wanted the players to be aware.” Schelin went on to score five goals, the most in the tournament, and Sweden finished third after losing to Germany, the eventual champion, in the semifinals.
In Canada, Sweden is one of a handful of teams expected to contend late into the knockout rounds, and Sundhage knows that if all goes well, Friday’s group-stage game against the Americans may not be the only time she faces her former players.
The reunion may be a bit strange, she acknowledged, but she is sure any awkwardness will quickly pass. “Then it becomes just a game, 2-times-45 minutes,” she said. “That was home for me, of course, but now it is not. Home is a funny thing that way, isn’t it?”