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Jeff Kassouf: Sundhage's swansong heralds era of transition for USA women

Jeff Kassouf: Sundhage's swansong heralds era of transition for USA women

Graham Stuart / AFP

U.S. women's national team coach Pia Sundhage sang her swansong, literally, after the friendly against Costa Rica, leaving the USA in transition.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Pia Sundhage sang her swansong, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

U.S. Soccer announced on Saturday that Sundhage, the U.S. women’s national team head coach for nearly five years, will not return. She will coach the two matches against Australia on Sept. 16 and 19 before taking over as the next coach of Sweden, according to the Swedish Football Association.

Following Saturday's 8-0 victory over Costa Rica, Sundhage had no words to describe her time with the U.S., which includes two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup silver medal. So instead, she sang – a rendition of "If Not for You," written by Bob Dylan and made famous by Olivia Newton-John.

"English is not my mother tongue and I have a hard time to express how grateful I am and how lucky I am," she said. "I am the lucky one."

Sundhage was an assistant for China prior to taking the U.S. job on Nov. 13, 2007. After over five years on the road, she said she misses home.

"It's a really difficult decision to make," Sundhage said. "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."

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said a search committee will be formed in the coming days, which will likely include him and U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn.

Gulati did not want to publicly discuss candidates, but the next U.S. coach will likely need to develop young talent. If Sundhage had one weakness, it was not actively seeking new, young talent. She stuck with what worked, and the results backed those decisions. But plenty of good, talented players struggled to even get an invite to national team camps.

"Pia very much focused on this team," Gulati said. "What I mean by that is she wasn't very much involved in our youth team. She went to the youth finals looking for players, but wasn't really overseeing that part of the technical director's role."

Christie Rampone (37 years old) and Shannon Boxx (35) are unclear on their futures, and, as 32-year-old Abby Wambach said on Friday, "I'm not getting any younger." Talent like Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg – all the way down to U-17 gems like star midfielder Morgan Andrews – might be brought into the picture ahead the 2015 World Cup.

Giving players like that time in camp will help avoid a lull between the time when U.S. veterans retire and the next generation takes over, a transition which could come as soon as 2013. Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Tobin Heath already lead that younger group, but there is ample 20-plus-year-old talent throughout the U.S. system waiting for the phone to ring. They are playing college soccer right now, or waiting for the next rendition of a U.S. professional league to form.

The pool of coaches to draw from is deep and diverse. Successful professional coaches like Paul Riley and Aaran Lines – winner of three-straight championships in three different leagues with the Western New York Flash – and in-house coaches like U.S. Soccer women's development director Jill Ellis are surely at least on the long-list of options.

All have the necessary connections to handle the turnover that will take place over the next three years. For now, the U.S. women have a gold medal celebration tour to complete. And these next two matches will serve as a farewell to a coach they adore.

"It's going to be hard to leave the field and get into the locker room and not hear her," 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."

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