It started with a phone call. Back in the mid-1990s, Mark Krikorian, a women's soccer coach from a little college in New Hampshire, asked one of his top players, a Swede, for a contact in her country. That led him to dial up Pia Sundhage, the Swedish national team's star player.
Krikorian had never heard of her - had no idea she scored four goals for third-place Sweden at the 1991 Women's World Cup and captained Sweden at the '95 World Cup and '96 Olympics. But Krikorian visited Sundhage in Sweden, and they wound up coaching professional soccer together for two seasons in Philadelphia.
If Sundhage hadn't answered that phone call, the United States may have had one less gold medal in Beijing.
"I can't know for sure, but maybe I would have been the head coach of Sweden or assistant coach," said Sundhage, who brings her gold-medal-winning squad to Lincoln Financial Field tomorrow night to face Ireland in a friendly game.
"I called her out of the blue," said Krikorian, the women's coach at Florida State and the former coach of the Philadelphia Charge, the team's only head coach before the demise of the WUSA after three seasons. "I told her I planned to come to Sweden. I talked to her about college soccer. She welcomed me into her home."
"We stayed up to 2:30 in the morning, talking in the kitchen," Sundhage said. "We talked about zone defenses. He was very friendly. . . . We talked about beer."
They stayed in touch as Sundhage, already a player/coach for her club in Sweden, retired from playing and Krikorian moved from two-time Division II national champion Franklin Pierce to Division I Hartford before the Charge hired him.
"My first call was to her," Krikorian said. "It was a no-brainer."
Sundhage isn't the only one on the U.S. team with a local history.
Heather Mitts was a Charge defender. Star goalkeeper Hope Solo played for the Charge during their last season. Even gold-medal scorer Carli Lloyd from Delran had trained with the team that season, although Sundhage was no longer there. By then, she moved to her own WUSA head-coaching job in Boston.
"I learned a lot my two years in Philadelphia," Sundhage said. "Mark, the way he was coaching - his pregame talks, just using the words. The way he used all the words."
Being around top players from around the world, the blend of players, really helped her coaching, Sundhage said. She later spent six months as assistant coach of the Chinese national team for last year's Women's World Cup before taking over the U.S. team.
"I'm glad U.S. soccer was willing to be open-minded and say, 'OK, it's time for a different approach,' " said Krikorian, who led Florida State to the NCAA title game last year. "They won the gold, but I'm happy with how they played. . . . We're still relying in this country much more on athletic quality and competitiveness, as opposed to tactics, and developing the game, movement off the ball. It's nice to see a team that focuses on keeping the ball. . . . Let's include the ball in the game."
Many in the soccer community expect Sundhage to coach the Americans through the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. She and U.S. soccer officials will discuss a contract in the coming days.
"We're on the same page pretty much," Sundhage said of agreeing to a long-term deal. Her next goal is "to win again but in a different way," meaning with more of a long-term plan.
Krikorian said Sundhage hasn't changed since he first sat down in her kitchen.
"It was clear from Day 1 how passionate she was about the game," he said. "She's the best coach I know."
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