Pia Sundhage trudged down the tunnel of the Home Depot Center with a guitar strapped to her back. This is how she will leave the United States: a gift from her gold-winning players in tow and a song on her lips.
The coach of the U.S. women's team is departing after a friendly against Australia – which the U.S. beat 2-1 in California on Sunday – in Colorado on Sept. 19.
"I've been away from Sweden now actually six years, because before I went here I was in China for half a year," Sundhage said. "It's time to go home."
Before heading into the sunset, Sundhage will finish a pair of friendlies against Australia as part of a 10-game victory tour across the United States to celebrate winning gold in the 2012 Olympics. The U.S. women also won in 2008 and reached the 2011 World Cup final.
Her replacement has big cleats to fill.
"She brings passion and love to the game. We're really excited for her and her future," Abby Wambach said. "We hope she has the best second place finishes for the rest of her career."
Wambach jokes, but it's clear this group of players adores the outgoing coach. Prior to Sunday's match, Sundhage regaled the nearly 20,000 fans in attendance with a melodic version of "You Are My Sunshine." The Swede frequently bursts into song, so the players bought her a new guitar and signed it as a farewell gift. She played Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" at center field after the game before strapping the memento to her back and heading down the tunnel.
"It's kind of a clean breakup, so to speak," Megan Rapinoe said. "We'll definitely miss her. She set just such a cool atmosphere and environment for us. But I think in the same breath everyone is looking forward to something new."
Sundhage's future is clear: she will coach Sweden in next year's European Championship, which it is hosting. For the rest of the squad the future is considerably more murky. WPS folded, leaving the players without club teams. The next major tournament doesn't come around for three years, the 2015 World Cup.
"We're in a holding pattern in terms of deciding what our fate is," Wambach said.
There's still hope a professional domestic league could present itself. Another option is Europe.
"We play a lot of games with the national team, but it can't just be the national team. We have to find club teams, weather that's in the U.S. or abroad," Alex Morgan said. "I'm open to going abroad if there is no professional league here. I think this is the right time for me if I were to go any time in my career."
Those are decisions for later. Wambach said she didn't expect any developments before winter. For now, the team is celebrating its gold medals and giving its coach the meaningful sendoff she deserves.
Wambach highlighted how Sundhage melded difficult personalities together "flawlessly." Rapinoe said she'd miss the celebrations of "unbridled joy" after each goal.
For Sundhage, she'll leave a team that has defined her career as a coach.
"It's a certain feeling being around winners, it's a certain feeling being around this team. It's hard for me to explain how much they meant to me in my coaching," she said. "I'm a much better coach than I was five years ago. I think U.S. Soccer, they were brave enough to hire a Swedish coach, ex-player, and try to win gold."
She paused. Smiled. "And we did."
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