U.S. Women's Soccer Coach Pia Sundhage Contemplates Different Olympics Strategy

08/04/2012 03:25 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2012

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The U.S. women's soccer team digs the long ball. Maybe a little too much.

It's hard to blame the players. With such talented forwards up front, it's tempting to launch Texas Leaguers that travel some 30, 40, 50 yards or more. The ploy worked to perfection in the Olympic quarterfinals when defender Rachel Buehler knocked a long one to Alex Morgan that led to Abby Wambach's first-half goal in the win over New Zealand.

But the Americans fell in love with the strategy in a 2-0 victory that wasn't secured until Sydney Leroux's goal in the final minutes. Coach Pia Sundhage said she wants to see her players keep the ball on the ground more and build the attack through the midfield as they prepare for Monday's semifinal against Canada.

"When we play long too often, too early, then we give away the ball," Sundhage said. "And that's a stressful situation for me. I don't think it's a stressful situation for the players as much as for me, but it's the soccer I want to play."

Those are the types of things that cause a coach to fret, even when a tournament is going well. The U.S. team has had challenges, but no crisis so far at the Olympics. Wambach is scoring a goal every game, and it's been more than 5½ hours of playing time since goalkeeper Hope Solo last allowed a goal. On Saturday, the players had a casual day, taking the train from Newcastle to Manchester and settling into a hotel adjacent to a golf course far from the city center.

A calm setting, but one that doesn't necessarily calm the coach's stress.

"For me, personally, it's a little bit stressful when we don't play well," Sundhage said "It doesn't matter if it's 2-0, 3-0 or whatever, because I know how we can play."

The long ball discussion can go a long way among soccer aficionados — and certainly among Sundhage's own players. Solo, for instance, said after Friday's game that focusing on more creativity in the midfield could cost the team its long-held dominance on the defensive end.

Sundhage said that's not a sentiment that Solo has expressed in a team meeting. Besides, added the coach: "Every player will have a slightly different view of the game."

"At the end of the day," Sundhage said, "we will be on the same page if we go with the game plan."

Which is sometimes easier said than done. The players on the field face 90 minutes of split-second decisions on how best to attack or defend. If defender Amy LePeilbet sees Wambach in the clear downfield, then it makes sense to send the ball there via air mail — not snail mail.

"I think the key on the soccer field is being able to do both," LePeilbet said. "You have to be unpredictable, so at times if the long ball's on, you hit it. When you hit that a couple of times, usually they start to expand. All of a sudden some windows start to open up and we start to bang it around, keep it on the field. If we can be unpredictable and do both, we can be more dangerous."

Midfielder Heather O'Reilly emphasized that the coach is looking for balance.

"I think Pia's very aware of our weapons. Alex's speed is unmatched, and her ability to get behind defenses is unmatched," O'Reilly said. "At the end of the day, Pia wants to win games, so I think that a mix has been very encouraged. If we've gone over the top a few times and have been successful, I think that you go again, and I think that Pia would agree with that."

But there are other times when coach is on the sideline asking her players to be more patient. She'd like to know that they're listening.

"We talk about dictating the tempo, we talk about changing the point of attack," Sundhage said. "The thing I ask of them is try."


Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP

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