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Sep 19, 2012

U.S. cruises in Pia Sundhage's farewell

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- On her final victory lap, Pia Sundhage hopped and high-stepped her way around the field.

As the U.S. women's national soccer team coach soaked in the cheers from the capacity crowd, her team began serenading her by belting out, "You are my sunshine."

A fitting tribute since Sundhage has had the squad in perfect harmony for five years.

A fitting way to go out, too.

Abby Wambach broke a tie early in the second half and Alex Morgan added two goals and two assists, helping the U.S. beat Australia 6-2 Wednesday night in an international friendly that was Sundhage's farewell game.

"Today is Pia's day. We've been talking about it all day: What can we do to show her?" Wambach said. "She's a passionate woman about this game. We knew the best thing we could do was give her a win."

Sundhage announced earlier this month she was stepping away after leading the squad to back-to-back Olympic gold medals. She will return home to coach the Swedish national team.

Heather O'Reilly, Shannon Boxx and Sydney Leroux also scored for the Americans, who move to 21-0-2 against Australia.

The Australians went ahead 2-1 late in the first half on Sarah Walsh's low shot past Hope Solo. A few minutes later, Morgan tied the game.

Wambach deflected in the decisive goal in the 53rd minute when she simply stuck her foot out after Morgan unleashed a shot.

And with that, the team was on its way to sending Sundhage out in winning fashion.

Sundhage leaves after a highly successful stint, going 91-6-10 in her time on the bench. Besides two Olympic gold medals, she also led the Americans to their first World Cup final in 12 years.

"She's built this game, helped elevate the game to a new level," said Solo, whose team won its 14th straight match. "So, there's not too much to be sad about. Of course, we're heartbroken that she's gone. But she's fulfilling her dreams and we're going to fulfill ours."

As a goodbye present, the team recently gave Sundhage a guitar that was signed by all the players in -- surprise, surprise -- the color of gold.

"It's the best present I ever got," she said.

They gave her quite a few memories along the way, too.

Sundhage's most poignant? That's easy: When the team roared back against Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup. Wambach tied it at 2 with a magnificent, leaping header in the 122nd minute. The U.S. eventually captured the match 5-3 on penalty kicks.

"Better than a movie," Sundhage said. "That is the moment of my soccer life."

This final performance wasn't too bad, either.

Morgan's performance against the Australians gives her 63 points this year. It's the most for a national player in a calendar year since 2004, when Wambach accounted for 75 points.

"We wanted to give her a good show," Morgan said. "We didn't have the right rhythm in the first half. We're happy that we got a win in Pia's last game."

After the match was over, Sundhage hugged everyone in sight. She also began signing through tears -- Tina Turner's classic, "Simply the Best."

It was a day of singing for Sundhage, who performed tunes in the pregame meeting as well. The song list included: "The Times They Are A-Changin" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

Sundhage came in singing and left the same way.

"When a coach comes in and you don't know who they are and they start singing songs to you, it's like, 'What is this going to be? How is this going to go?' " Wambach said. "Thankfully, it went well. It turned out really well for us."

Over Sundhage's career, she has made a habit of jotting down notes filled with emotions and tactics. Lately, she's been looking back at those details, to remember how special these players were to her.

The feeling was mutual.

Midfielder Carli Lloyd is convinced she might not be wearing the red, white and blue if not for Sundhage, who changed the way the team played after taking over. Sundhage emphasized midfield play even more, making Lloyd a vital component.

"When Pia first came on, she saw me play in previous tournaments and said to me, 'I really like how you play and really believe in you,' " Lloyd recounted. "From then on, she preached playing in the midfield, playing possession. That's right up my alley."

Now, the big question is, who replaces Sundhage?

U.S. soccer federation president Sunil Gulati recently said a search committee has been assembled -- one that includes former U.S. team standout Mia Hamm -- and a replacement could be selected possibly next month.

"Heard they have it down to double-digit (candidates)," Solo said. "But I don't know who it's going to come down to."

A new voice will take some getting used to for the players. They're used to Sundhage's fun-loving demeanor. She laughed with them. She played guitar for them.

After O'Reilly's early goal, the team went over to Sundhage on the bench and played air guitar for her.

"If you look at her statistics alone, she's done a fabulous job," Lloyd said. "But it's not only stats; it's the way she is as a person. She brings so much joy and pleasure. It's contagious, the way she has so much passion for the game."

Morgan earned her first cap while playing for Sundhage. Now, she's one of the most recognizable faces on the team and younger kids frequently show up in the stands wearing her jersey.

"Pia has done so much for us. We really appreciate everything," Morgan said. "It's not typical that you send off a coach like this -- on such a high note and such a happy note."

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