Pia Sundhage wasn't born in the USA, but she leaves an American legend

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Such is the normalcy and humility of Pia Sundhage that at no point do you feel you are in the presence of a living legend.

But while Sundhage, who left her position at United States women's head coach this week to return to her native Sweden, is quirky and funny and, by her own admission, ever so slightly crazy, she also without any doubt deserves a place among her sport's all-time coaching greats.

The reality that women's soccer attracts a far smaller audience than its male counterpart is the only reason why the 52-year-old from a small Swedish town where girls weren't supposed to play a "boy's game" is not routinely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Vicente del Bosque.

And while stars such as Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and new pin-up Alex Morgan have grabbed the headlines, Sundhage deserves enormous credit for how she kept this program at the forefront of the international game during the most competitive era in women's soccer history.

The players knew it, too. Following her final game, a 6-2 thumping of Australia in an exhibition Wednesday night, they gave Sundhage a specially made guitar they all signed. It was appropriate for a coach who would routinely bursts into song in the locker room or team hotel, and sometimes in press conferences, too.

When Sundhage took over in late 2007, there was something of a crisis in the camp. The Women's World Cup campaign had been an unmitigated disaster, with a crushing defeat to Brazil in the semifinal, following in quick succession by Solo's unwise television rant and the dismissal of coach Greg Ryan.

And while Solo should have probably kept quiet and Ryan just didn't seem to understand the strengths (or weaknesses) of his team particularly well, the biggest problem was that the world was getting better.

Brazil, Germany, Japan and the swathe of other countries were finally giving women's soccer the attention it deserved and standards were rising dramatically. No longer could the machine of the NCAA college system be enough to guarantee a stream of talent of sufficient strength to hold off a global challenge.

Sundhage came in like a breath of fresh air and got her players motivated and hungry. Before long she had them celebrating an Olympic gold medal from Beijing, despite losing the first game of the tournament to Norway and having to cope without the injured Wambach.

"She is the ultimate professional as a coach," striker Heather O'Reilly told Yahoo! Sports this summer. "But she also makes sure it is all a lot of fun."

Sundhage's persona is immensely likable and it was reflected in a group of players who are widely loved in the United States, even if they operate under the radar at most times except for Olympics or World Cups.

The team's run to the World Cup final in 2011, courtesy of Wambach's incredible late equalizer in the quarterfinal against Brazil, was proof of how quickly and how emphatically the side could grab the national attention. Defeat to Japan in the final brought heartbreak, but also a steely determination to go one better in London.

That goal, held dear by Sundhage and her charges for a year, was duly accomplished at Wembley Stadium – a summer night in the British capital where the coach celebrated victory by leaping into the stands to rejoice with fans and loved ones.

The song that blared over the stadium sound system was a Bruce Springsteen number and Sundhage belted it out at the top of her voice while strumming away on an air guitar. Born in the USA she may not have been, but she gave her heart and soul to the national team for five years, and is worthy of her place in history.

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