So, you are Pia Sundhage.
After several years of hard work, 30-plus international matches and dozens of players evaluated through countless training sessions, you have chosen your 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Team. You have three matches left before the start of the biggest event in women’s soccer. Do you focus on getting your projected starting lineup as many minutes as possible? Or perhaps you hone your reserves as they will likely be needed in the World Cup?
Are there tactics to work on? Or has that work been done over the past months? What about set plays? The world will be watching these three friendly games. How much do you show your opponents? Do you even care? Perhaps it’s more about your preparing your team than preparing for or worrying about anyone else.
Sundhage is certainly not alone in facing these questions. Every coach in every World Cup tournament must answer them in some form or fashion, but each situation does have its unique variables.
Sundhage named her roster 50 days before the start of the World Cup, then lost Lindsay Tarpley to an ACL tear 75 minutes into the first match against Japan in Columbus, Ohio. She has also seen veteran Heather Mitts struggle in a race to get her hamstring healthy.
Two of the matches – against Japan – pitted the USA against an opponent similar to North Korea, the USA’s first Women’s World Cup opponent. The Send-Off game will be against Mexico, the team that beat the USA in CONCACAF Qualifying and forced the Americans into a playoff against Italy, from which the U.S. emerged with the final berth to Germany. The match against the Mexicans at the beautiful Red Bull Arena will surely feature a bit more edge than your average (women’s) USA-Mexico clash.
How does one tie all this together to get a team ready to compete in the Women’s World Cup? It’s a daunting challenge, but that’s why Pia loves to coach.
“When talking about the preparation games, we wanted to play our potential starting eleven to work on ‘relationships’ on the field in order to better be able to predict teammates’ decisions and give the team confidence,” said Sundhage. “Of course we also wanted to prepare players coming off the bench as much as possible and give them a chance to have an impact on the game, especially for Alex Morgan coming into the game for the last 15, 20 or 30 minutes.”
That plan, however, had to be tweaked a bit once Tarpley was injured and Mitts was unable to play in either game.
“We had to change the plan,” said Sundhage, touching on a key component of game preparation and in-game coaching. Often things don’t go as planned before or during games, and Sundhage and her staff were forced to adapt.
“I am a positive person and I see every twist and turn as an opportunity to grow the team,” said Sundhage. “We gave some players who might be reserves in Germany some playing time to help prepare for big games. We want to make sure that every player on the roster can step in for a teammate at any time.”
Over the two games against Japan, all six healthy defenders saw action, all seven midfielders played (including Tarpley), and all four forwards got to ply their attacking skills. Another positive saw goalkeeper Hope Solo get her first two starts since major shoulder surgery last fall.
“Every game is valuable. In every game we can learn something and get better,” said Sundhage. “It’s important that we work on different scenarios during games. Maybe we change tactics late in the game or change formations for a short amount of time in the game. It’s very important for the players to be understanding of what is going on out there on the field as far as tactics and game situations and then communicate with each other. But it’s also very important that our coaches communicate with each other and with the players on the field. We can have many practices and meetings, but it’s the games where we really see how well we deal with adversity and how much we’ve grown as a team.”
During both Japan matches, the USA executed numerous dangerous corner kicks and scored off a set play in the first game when Abby Wambach powered home a header off an Ali Krieger long ball. Sundhage says she and her staff made a point to focus on sharpening up the set plays but hinted there could be more variety come World Cup time.
“We didn’t work a lot on set pieces during training leading up to the game, but we did do quite a bit during a three-week camp in Florida before heading into the Japan matches,” said Sundhage. “We wanted to emphasize their value during parts of the game. The players know this. They know how important quality services are and we have players willing to put their bodies on the line inside the box. This is a good combination.”
As far as style of play for the U.S. team, every game is a chance to express the kind of soccer Sundhage wants to see on the field. Earning two shutouts without team captain Christie Rampone – who was rested due to a minor injury -- against a talented attacking team like Japan, is a good sign that the USA’s tough defense is rounding into the shape. The U.S. team has also been working hard to possess the ball, be patient, find the width and make things happen on the flanks. With such talented flank players in Megan Rapinoe, Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath, a strength of the U.S. team could be on the wings come World Cup time.
“We work a lot on crosses, we emphasize the importance of crosses and we love to see many dangerous crosses in a match,” said Sundhage. “But we must keep the ball and choose our times to attack in order to find the space. We are getting better and there were some really great attacking sequences in the Japan games. The four goals were all fantastic and we can gain a lot of confidence from those goals.”
One of the most important aspects of these last three matches is that the opponents are teams that will also be competing in the Women’s World Cup. Sundhage wants to simulate World Cup speed of play as much as possible. She wants her team to be able to deal with the high pressure on the field and the high expectations off the field.
“We have a group of competitors, players who are very experienced and mentally tough,” said Sundhage. “Still, every game toughens you mentally and physically. We will be one of the favorites at the World Cup and teams will be giving us their best performance, as they always do. We need to be able to counter that with our best performance and prepare for that long before we get to the stadiums. We had a bit of a rough start to the first Japan game and maybe a little to the second, but I am proud of how we battled to find our rhythm and won two games against an excellent Japanese team.”
Now Sundhage and her staff head into the final match against Mexico with at least one roster decision still to be made, with several candidates still in the running to replace Tarpley. Sundhage will of course be focused on filling that spot while also preparing her team to depart for Germany with a squad on the verge of reaching its peak. Growing and experimenting in these final three friendlies is not only fine with Sundhage but in her eyes necessary. When the team hits the stadiums in Germany, she wants all the players to be playing their best individually and within the team concept.
“Every game is a teacher,” said Sundhage. “In these friendly games we have a chance to try our game plan and it is okay to make a mistake. We want our players to reach their expectations and enjoy the experience and the challenges over 90 minutes. A team of 21 extremely talented and athletic players who are fighting and supporting each other, who are playing and embracing their roles in a positive manner, who are loving the game and opportunity to do something very special for themselves and their country…this is a team that can win the World Cup.”