Bringing back the passion
CARSON, Calif. -- With a new head coach in town, the Home Depot Center was abuzz. This time, the excitement wasn't for a certain English soccer import, but for a Swede with the golden touch.
On a blustery night in early December, the U.S. women's national team took the field for the first training camp under new coach Pia Sundhage after a month-long layoff. The five-day minicamp, which concluded Dec. 12, gave Sundhage a chance to assess the team before heading into the new year. Who can blame the Yanks for trying to get a head start on their New Year's resolutions? With Sundhage at the helm in time for the Four Nations Tournament in China, the team hopes to kick off January 2008 with some fireworks up front.
Something old, something new
With seven fresh faces coming off their college season in attendance, and the return of defender Heather Mitts, there were also a few noticeable absences at the Home Depot Center. U.S. captain Kristine Lilly was taking a much-needed break, which she earned after 340 caps, a U.S. men's and women's team record, while also contemplating possible retirement. Stephanie Lopez, after an emotional end to her college career at the University of Portland was preparing to suit up for something else -- her wedding. Midfielder Angela Hucles was in Africa doing humanitarian work, and defender Tina Ellertson is pregnant with her second child (but plans to return to action sometime after April). Marci Jobson has retired and taken over as head coach of Baylor University's women's soccer team.
A shot of youth is just what the U.S. women need. Each of the seven newcomers has played with the U.S. U-19s or U-20s, but only three are capped on the senior level. Ironically, the early exits of their collective college teams (North Carolina, Stanford and the University of Portland) in the NCAA Tournament left the septet available for training camp -- with energy to spare. Angie Woznuk, who just finished an admirable career for the Portland Pilots a few months ago, was part of the talented crew of collegiate midfielders. "I was just lucky enough to get called into camp when I did and play out my disappointment and frustration" Woznuk said. She also spoke on behalf of the newbies about Sundhage's expectations: "She made everyone comfortable and gave the impression that everyone has a chance of becoming part of this team."
North Carolina midfielder Yael Averbuch, a junior known for her YouTube exploits (check out the bomb she scored from starting kickoff), was invited to camp, along with fellow Tarheels Tobin Heath, Casey Nogueira and Nikki Washington. Rachel Buehler was the lone defender, finishing her career at Stanford as a three-year starter who had previously trained with the U.S. during residency camp. Portland sophomore striker Michelle Enyeart rounded out the young group -- she was the prime target for Woznuk up top this year as one of the best finishers at the collegiate level.
Kate Markgraf, a nine year vet of the team who has seen many players come and go, spoke highly of the incoming generation, "The youth in this country always impress me," she said. "They are more technical than we were at their age."
After the Hope Solo-Greg Ryan shakeup at the World Cup left the team chemistry fizzling, Pia will look to the young Yanks to bring back the passion.
Look for the U.S. to have more versatility in the attack, supported by a more controlling midfield. Sundhage's coaching philosophy revolves around creative possessions. "We'll work on dictating the tempo, then finding the right moment for penetration" Sundhage said. "This style demands good decision making from brave players and coaches."
Quality over quantity was de rigueur for the first training camp. There were bright eyes and smiles in abundance when Pia addressed the team on the pitch. "This camp was a chance to get to know each other a little bit and have fun," said Sundhage.
"You just want to play for her," said Heather Mitts, who missed the World Cup while recovering from a torn ACL. "She wants us to play with passion and to enjoy the game as much as she does."
While Mitts has not yet reached her full form, she says her knee feels great. With Sundhage's support, Mitts is looking at the Algarve Cup in March as a realistic option to stage her comeback. In the meantime, she looks forward to playing under Pia, who also coached her Philadelphia Charge team in the WUSA. "Pia's sessions cover a lot in a very systematic approach," Mitts said. "She is efficient and is always looking for lots of concentration on our part. She challenges us to think and to work with our teammates."
Markgraf is also an early Sundhage convert -- having played under her with the Boston Breakers (WUSA) and again for KIF Orebro in Sweden. "Her camp was about bringing the passion back," Markgraf said. "Two years in residency camps ('05 and '06) takes an emotional toll on everyone."
It's up to the new head coach to get the team emotionally realigned. The first thing Sundhage did was get the players to accept their weaknesses: "We were a victim of our success in our 50-game win streak prior to the Women's World Cup," Markgraf said.
However, there is an upside to the team enduring a tumultuous 2007.
"Going through all the drama made us better, stronger, and more united," Margraf said.
The biggest obstacle for the U.S. women right now is also an intangible: team chemistry. If it's any consolation, it takes one woman to understand another. What the U.S. Soccer Federation got in Sundhage was more than a coach and tactician -- it got a psychologist and a life coach. Sundhage is the anti-Greg Ryan -- fitness is secondary to her, and communication is at a premium. A productive move on her part, Sundhage has contacted former coaches Ryan and April Heinrichs (a friend from playing days) to help ease the transition. The new U.S. coach has already taken an initiative to improve team cohesion.
"We will work with the players on the bench in every game, so that those players feel that when they enter the field, that they can change the game and make a difference," Sundhage said.
The schedule is already shaping up, with the first camp of the year held from Jan. 3-8 to gear up for the Four Nations Tournament in China later in the month. Sundhage will select a 20-player roster to travel to Foshan, China. After the Algarve Cup in March, the team will have another training camp at the Home Depot Center before heading to Mexico for Olympic qualifying from April 2-13. Everything hinges on the Yanks staking out their territory south of the border.
In the meantime, Sundhage has made it clear no one has a free spot on the roster.
"That reminds me, I have to go out and kick the ball against the wall when I'm done with this interview!" exclaimed Markgraf. Looks like someone has her groove back.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.