Pia Sundhage is set to take over as Sweden’s women’s national soccer manager after leading the United States to back-to-back gold medals and their first World Cup final in 12 years. The announcement of her departure on Sept. 1 came just a few hours before the U.S. women began their "victory tour" with an 8-0 victory against Costa Rica in the hometown of star Abby Wambach.
"It's really a difficult decision to make as you can imagine being around those guys. They make me look good," Sundhage said.
Ultimately, she said, the decision came down to her heart in pursuing what she considers her dream job.
The Swedish soccer association said early Sunday that Sundhage had signed a four-year contract that starts Dec. 1, a day after her contract with U.S. Soccer expires.
"I have long dreamed of becoming a Sweden coach and now I am so happy," Sundhage said.
The Americans are 88-6-10 since Sundhage took over in 2007 and made the final of all three major tournaments during her tenure. Their 2-1 victory over Japan in last month's Olympic final was a rematch of the 2011 World Cup final and avenged the most painful loss in team history.
During a pregame interview at midfield Saturday, Sundhage broke into song when asked what message she wanted to deliver to fans regarding her departure. To cheers from the sold-out Sahlen's Stadium that holds more than 13,000 people, Sundhage took the microphone and sang a few lines from the Bob Dylan-written "If Not For You," which became a hit for Olivia Newton-John.
"English is not my mother tongue, and I have a hard time to express how grateful I am and how lucky. I'm the lucky one," Sundhage said of why she elected to sing. "I wanted to tell the fans, youth soccer, the coaches I've been working with, staff and the players, if not for you, you know. If not for you, I wouldn't find the door. I wouldn't be where I am."
It proved a fitting coda—she also sang a Dylan tune at the first team meeting five years ago.
U.S. Soccer said it will begin searching for a new coach immediately, but has no timetable for naming a successor. There is no major tournament until the next World Cup in 2015.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said Sundhage informed him of her decision on Saturday morning. He said it didn't come as a surprise because Sundhage had indicated to him she was leaning toward returning to Sweden during a conversation the two had days after the women won the gold medal in London.
"It's always been a dream of hers," Gulati said. "It's not a sad day. It's a happy day as far as I'm concerned. We're happy for Pia. And we're happy that we've got the best women's team in the world."
Sundhage replaces Thomas Dennerby, who managed the side for eight years. Sundhage 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 finished her 22-year international career with 71 goals.
"I have to admit, I've been away from my home for five years," Sundhage said Friday after practice. "The fact that Sweden is hosting the European championship (in 2013), that's a big thing of course. ... I want to do the right thing with U.S. Soccer and start with talking with them and see if I can give another four years. And that's a key, because this team, they deserve somebody that's committed 110 percent."
Sundhage had several coaching stints, including head coach of the Under-19 Swedish team and assistant with the Chinese women's national team before taking over the USA team. Her calm demeanor and relentlessly positive attitude were exactly what was needed for a U.S. team still wounded and raw from the debacle of the 2007 World Cup in China.
She set the tone from her very first team meeting, when she pulled out her guitar and began playing Bob Dylan's classic, "The Times They Are A-Changin."
Sundhage inherits a Swedish team very much like the one she took over in the U.S. in 2007. The Swedish women’s team is in transition as stars such as Lotta Schelin, Josefin Oqvist and Caroline Seger begin to make way for youngsters such as Madeleine Edlund, Kosovare Asllani and Annica Svensson. Dennerby, who resigned after Sweden failed to advance to the medal stage at the 2012 Olympics, squeezed all he could out of his players but the transition remained difficult.
For players such as Schelin and Seger, who played with arguably the most successful and talented group of Swedish women’s football players, a group led by Hanna Ljungberg, Malin Mostrom and Victoria Svensson, the transition has been especially difficult. None of the current crop of players has been able to escape from comparisons to the teams from 1997-2004. Sundhage, with her easy going personality and ability to reach players, might just be the key to unlocking the potential on the Swedish team and getting it to reach its potential.