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Sundhage to step down, ending enormously successful U.S. stint

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Pia Sundhage's tenure as U.S. women's national team head coach came to an abrupt end Saturday with her announcement that she would step down.

Hours later, following the United States' 8-0 victory over Costa Rica, the Swedish FA announced Sundhage, who scored 71 international goals for Sweden from 1975-96, will take over as head coach beginning Dec. 1. Sundhage will coach her last two games for the U.S. against Australia on Sept. 16 and 19.

"It's a really difficult decision to make," Sundhage said after the match. "You can imagine being around those (players) and they have made me look good. I have become so much better as a coach, but the fact that I want to go home and Sweden is hosting the European Championship -- still I feel it's really hard."

Her move to Sweden brings an end to one of the most successful tenures of any international coach.

In just under five years with the U.S., Sundhage compiled an 89-6-10 record, winning two Olympic gold medals and finishing second at the 2011 World Cup. She was committed -- painstakingly, at times -- to winning with the group she had, even if the soccer was not always pretty.

The U.S. nearly failed to get to the 2011 World Cup in Germany after faltering in CONCACAF qualifying. Sundhage's squad beat Italy in a home-and-home playoff in November 2010 to book the last ticket to Germany. Failure there would have resulted in the worst period in U.S. women's history and the sure end of Sundhage's reign as coach.

Instead, the U.S. regrouped and stormed back from panic mode to come within a few penalties of a third World Cup title, falling to Japan in the final. Last month the U.S. won its third straight Olympic gold medal in a rematch with the Japanese.

And Sundhage led the way.

Intangibles in a statistic-driven sports world are often overlooked, but Sundhage's upbeat attitude rallied a team in need of direction. In 2007, she took over a team in "short term chaos," words used by U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, and "stabilized the situation" following an ugly, controversial third-place finish at the 2007 World Cup.

Even as she sprung the news of her departure on the U.S. squad just hours before Saturday's match, the amount of respect for Sundhage among players was enormous.

"It's going to be hard to leave the field and get into the locker room and not hear her," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. "I love Pia so much because she has shown me what it is like to love the game. Her passion is contagious and I hope nothing but the best for her."

Sundhage was often criticized for not giving enough young players opportunities at training camps and in matches, but one of the 17 players to earn their first senior team caps with the Swedish coach was Alex Morgan. Sundhage quickly developed Morgan's raw athletic scoring ability into one of the best talents in the world.

"She has helped me grow onto the scene gradually," Morgan, 23, said. "It's just been baby steps for me and I've gotten more playing time, gradually. I appreciate her doing that for me and for the team in general, just helping us get to that next level."

Sundhage challenged Morgan to be better at a time when everyone else was praising the star striker. Sundhage kept Morgan idle on the bench in Jan. 24's 4-0 Olympic qualifying victory over Mexico and challenged Morgan to be a 90-minute player in post-game comments.

Morgan since became a regular starter and now has 21 goals in 22 games this year after scoring Saturday.

So is Saturday's news that Sundhage will leave to take the Swedish job (a longtime rival of the Americans) a sad day for U.S. soccer?

"No," Gulati said. "You've got a group of gold medalists with a highly successful coach. I knew this was a possibility five years ago. In the sense that we're losing a very successful coach, but no coaches continue forever. It's a happy day as far as I'm concerned. We're happy for Pia and we're happy we have the best women's team in the world."

What comes next for the U.S. women is a large question mark. Gulati said a search committee will be formed in the coming days, but he is not yet ready to publicly discuss candidates for the job.

What lies in the past is Sundhage's legacy with the U.S., which will be very difficult for any future U.S. coach to surpass.

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