WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — On the eve of the match against her former team, Sweden coach Pia Sundhage addressed Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and the challenge of beating the talent-laden United States in the World Cup.
About the only thing she didn’t do was break into song.
During her five-year tenure with the U.S. national team, Sundhage was known for her vocal stylings: She famously warbled “Feelin’ Groovy” during a press conference at the 2011 World Cup in Germany.
For this year’s World Cup in Canada, she was more pragmatic approaching the highly anticipated showdown Friday night between No. 5 Sweden and the second-ranked United States. The stakes got higher for the Swedish women following their 3-all tie with Nigeria in the group-stage opener.
“The reason I’m sitting here is because of the U.S. team. They taught me how to deal with the pressure,” Sundhage said Thursday. “You can imagine: We got one point against Nigeria, we’re going to play the best team in the world. … It’s my job to make sure we try to do our very best.”
Adding to the buildup was a story about Sundhage in The New York Times that caused a stir this week. The interview was done in April, she said, acknowledging she can sometimes be provocative. “If I just gave you the same answer it would be boring,” she said.
Sundhage was quoted as saying that midfielder Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach and she suggested she wouldn’t start Wambach at this point in the popular veteran’s career. She said Solo was one of the most challenging players she’d coached, “especially when it comes to trouble.”
On Thursday, she called Solo “a piece of work,” but went on to also call her the “the best goalkeeper in the world.” She also said she would start Wambach on Friday night.
“If you look at Abby, she is special,” Sundhage said. “She is special in a lot of ways, especially her heading. I think she can go another four years.”
The U.S. won two Olympic golds and went to the World Cup final in Germany during Sundhage’s tenure with the team. It was the first time the Americans had gone to the final since winning the title in 1999.
She left after the 2012 London Games and returned home to coach her native Sweden’s national team. As a player she led Sweden to a third-place finish in the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, and the team’s first European championship in 1984.
She remains tremendously popular with the U.S. women who played under her.
“She has a really unique coaching style,” said midfielder Tobin Heath. “She really brings the best out in players because she’s so positive and encouraging. She really gives you that freedom to express yourself. I think a lot of players learned that under Pia and have taken that into this new step in our journey.”
U.S. coach Jill Ellis was an assistant under Sundhage. She was named interim coach after Sundhage stepped down, then again when former coach Tom Sermanni was dismissed in April 2014. Ellis was formally named head coach about a month later.
Ellis this week described Sundhage as “a sit-down-have-a-beer kind of friend.”
“Pia’s got extraordinary character and I love hanging out with her,” Ellis said. “We’ll be friends for a long, long time.”
The feeling is mutual.
“First of all, she is a student of the game. She’s been around youth soccer for a long time and now she is on top of her soccer life, coaching the best team in the world,” Sundhage said. “Being around her, she’s a positive person, she likes people and she has a great chance to win the World Cup with the U.S. team.”
The United States defeated No. 10 Australia 3-1 in its opening match, earning three points.
Sweden was not so fortunate. Nigeria was surprisingly fast and agile, coming back from a 2-0 deficit for a draw. Back in 2007, a draw with Nigeria in a group-stage match would keep Sweden out of the knockout round.
Sundhage called it a learning experience. Scouting No. 33 Nigeria was difficult because the team doesn’t often travel outside of Africa to play — and the performance shows how other nations are catching up to the top teams.
“Usually they say we look very organized, I don’t think we were that organized. Credit to the Nigerians,” she said. “That is why, being in the women’s game for so long, I’m very excited because that I can learn. I can learn from the other opponents. I don’t think I did that in ‘91 or ‘95. But today we can learn from all the opponents.”