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USA women's soccer coach Sundhage to step down

Associated Press Modified: September 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm •  Published: September 1, 2012

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — The U.S. women's soccer team's post-Olympic victory tour also will be a goodbye tour.

Coach Pia Sundhage is stepping down, returning to her native Sweden after leading the Americans to consecutive gold medals and their first World Cup final in 12 years. The announcement of her departure Saturday came just a few hours before the U.S. women began their "victory tour" against Costa Rica in the hometown of star Abby Wambach.

"I want to thank all the players and all of my assistant coaches for making me better," Sundhage said in a statement. "Before I took this job, I always admired the spirit and character of the U.S. team, but to experience that firsthand on the training field and from the bench as their coach was truly special and something I will treasure for the rest of my life."

The Americans are 88-6-10 since Sundhage took over in 2007, and made the final of all three major tournaments during her tenure. Their 2-1 victory over Japan in last month's Olympic final was a rematch of the 2011 World Cup final and avenged the most painful loss in team history.

During a pre-game interview at midfield Saturday, Sundhage broke into song when asked what message she wanted to deliver fans regarding her departure. To cheers from the sold-out Sahlen's Stadium that holds more than 13,000 people, Sundhage took the microphone and sang a few lines from the Bob Dylan-written "If Not For You," which became a hit for Olivia Newton-John.

It proved a fitting coda — she also sang a Dylan tune at the first team meeting five years ago.

U.S. Soccer said it will begin searching for a new coach immediately, but has no timetable for hiring a successor. There is no major tournament until the next World Cup in 2015.

Sundhage is expected to stay with the Americans for at least the next two games of their victory tour, a pair of exhibitions against Australia on Sept. 16 in Carson, Calif., and Sept. 19 in Commerce City, Colo. The U.S. then plays two-time World Cup champion Germany on Oct. 20 in Bridgeview, Ill., and Oct. 23 in East Hartford, Conn.

Sundhage's departure is not exactly a surprise. She has long expressed an interest in returning home, and is sure to be a top candidate to replace Thomas Dennerby, who resigned last month after eight years as coach of the Swedish women's team. Sundhage is still the face of women's soccer in Sweden, which she led to the title as a player at the first European Women's Championship in 1984 and the bronze medal at the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991.

She finished her 22-year international career with 71 goals.

"I have to admit I've been away from my home for five years," Sundhage said Friday after practice. "The fact that Sweden is hosting the European championship (in 2013), that's a big thing of course. ... I want to do the right thing with U.S. Soccer and start with talking with them and see if I can give another four years. And that's a key, because this team, they deserve somebody that's committed 110 percent."

Sundhage had several coaching stints, including head coach of the Under-19 Swedish team and assistant with the Chinese women's national team before taking over the USA team. Her calm demeanor and relentlessly positive attitude were exactly what was needed for a U.S. team still wounded and raw from the debacle of the 2007 World Cup in China.

The Americans went to China favored to win their third title, and carried a 51-game unbeaten streak into the semifinals against Brazil. But then-coach Greg Ryan made the surprise decision to start Briana Scurry against Brazil instead of Hope Solo, who had a shutout streak of nearly 300 minutes going and had started all but four of the Americans' 19 games that season. The move was a disaster; a 4-0 loss that was the worst defeat in U.S. history.

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