Pia Sundhage's Puzzling Remarks Motivate U.S. Players

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- It was supposed to be one of those festive reunions. Sweden manager Pia Sundhage was set to square off against her former protégés -- of both the coach and player varieties -- on the U.S. women's national team in a World Cup match.

Then Sundhage had to go and spike the punch bowl with pure grain alcohol. In an interview with The New York Times, she made some pointed comments about some of her former players. Abby Wambach? Sundhage said she wouldn't be a starter if she were still the coach. Hope Solo? The most challenging player she ever coached, "especially when it comes to trouble." And mainstay Carli Lloyd? Sundhage painted a picture of an emotionally fragile player who needed belief from her coaches in order to perform.

"When she felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players," Sundhage told The New York Times about Lloyd. "But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst."

At Thursday's prematch news conference, Sundhage didn't necessarily back away from her comments, but did seek to clarify them. She said of Solo, "She's a piece of work, but that's good as well. Things happen around her, but when it comes to two times 45 minutes, she is the best goalkeeper in the world."

Sundhage added that the reason she would make Wambach a sub was that it would extend her career, but that she felt confident Wambach would start on Friday.

As for Lloyd, Sundhage recalled how the U.S. midfielder "is a player sometimes smarter than I am" who didn't always follow instructions. That didn't mean she was unappreciative of Lloyd's efforts.

"The reason I'm sitting here is because of the U.S. team," she said. "They made me look good; three finals. And Carli Lloyd scored the winning goal in the Olympics both times actually."

Yet the damage has been done, due in no small part to the two days of roaring silence that ensued between publication and Sundhage's clarifications. The comments have created a stir, even within the Iron Bubble that current manager -- and former Sundhage assistant -- Jill Ellis has created around the team. James Galanis, Lloyd's personal trainer, said he had discussed Sundhage's comments with Lloyd, and that they didn't go over particularly well.

"It was confusing to Carli and it's confusing to anyone that's in the coaching and soccer industry as to why Pia would even bother making those comments," he said. "I think it's going to backfire on Pia, and I think she's definitely motivated Carli a little bit more."

Ellis wasn't on the receiving end of any barbs from her former boss. In fact Sundhage went to great lengths to praise her one-time assistant.

"She is special," she said. "First of all, she is a student of the game. She's been around youth soccer for a long time. Now she is on top of her soccer life coaching the best team in the world."

For her part, Ellis refused to be drawn into any discussion of Sundhage's comments. On Wednesday she once again referred to the bubble that exists around the team. With regards to the matchup, Ellis has spoken consistently about how much she's looking forward to it.

"Even in college, I had more enjoyment playing against my friends because it's a professional competition. But I have so much respect for Pia," she said during an exclusive interview prior to the tournament. "For me, it's not going to be an emotion of, 'Oh, we're facing Pia.' What I think Pia knows about us is that you can never count the Americans out, the mentality piece."

Which in part is what makes Sundhage's comments so puzzling. Did her intimate knowledge of the U.S. player pool make her think that playing mind games would give her team an edge? She was asked on Thursday if her comments were meant as some kind of psychological warfare.

"Not at all. I'm not that smart," she said, seeming to channel her inner José Mourinho, the manager of Chelsea FC.

Galanis agreed, though either way he thinks Sundhage may come to regret her comments.

"It doesn't sound like a tool to get into their heads," Galanis said. "Pia should know more than anyone that you don't want to put the backs of the U.S. women's national team up against the wall because that's when they're the best."

In the case of Lloyd, they also don't quite match reality. When Sundhage benched the midfielder prior to the 2012 Olympics, Lloyd rebounded to be one of the top players in the tournament.

Regardless, Sundhage's remarks have added an edge to a matchup that contains considerable cross-pollination. Several U.S. players, including defender Meghan Klingenberg and forward Christen Press, played club soccer in Sweden.

While it's tempting to think Sundhage has the advantage given her knowledge of the U.S. team, Ellis has an ace in her back pocket in the form of assistant Tony Gustavsson, a native Swede who at club level has coached many players on both sides of Friday's encounter.

Sweden midfielder Caroline Seger, who played under Gustavsson at Tyreso when it reached the UEFA Women's Champions League final, said of Gustavsson, "He's for sure one of the best coaches I ever had."

Klingenberg, another member of that Tyreso side, echoed those sentiments.

"The way [Gustavsson] sees the game is like a chess master," she said. "He sees the big picture, and he's really good about moving pieces and moving parts and making sure those parts work well together to win the game. I've never had a coach that's able to do that before. It was a huge growth and learning experience playing under him and seeing the way his mind works."

Yet most of the attention has been on the way Sundhage's mind works. She repeatedly referred to the U.S. on Thursday as the best team in the world. It makes you wonder what surprises Sundhage has in store for Friday.

"We have a chance because if you look at the players we have, the central line, and we do have goal scorers. ... We need to be smart and bring all the pressure to the U.S. team."

In many respects she already has. The question now is, will it work.