Sports Talk

Favorites emerging in U.S. Soccer’s quest to replace Pia Sundhage

If you’re looking to get up to speed on Pia Sundhage’s potential replacements, you won’t get a better dossier than Lauren Barker’s post at Stars and Stripes FC. Of the five people who were interviewed last week, Barker profiles the three who seem to have the best chance of being the next U.S. Women’s National Team coach (though U.S. Soccer is doing a good job keeping the candidate).

Allow me to build on Lauren’s good work …

Right now, Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum appears to be the favorite. As Barker notes, if there was a line of succession to the role, it would be his turn. Three of Sundhage’s four predecessors had significant head coaching experience at the college level, where Waldrum’s been extremely successful. In this Anson Dorrance, North Carolina-dominated era of college soccer, Waldrum’s managed to win two national titles. Given U.S. women’s soccer’s dependence on the college game as its exclusive provider of talent, expertise with NCAA soccer is the significant advantage Waldrum has over most of his competition.

That competition is coming from Paul Riley, the former coach of the Philadelphia Independence. Though a favorite among those who watched his WPS teams, Riley was initially considered a long shot for the position. The England-born coach had vehemently spoken out against Pia Sundhage’s use of Amy Rodriguez, claiming the then-Independence forward’s confidence was destroyed by Sundhage’s handling of her at the 2011 World Cup. There, Sundhage benched Rodriguez, a long time (struggling) starter for the team, as the likes of Lauren Cheney, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath started getting more starts.

U.S. Soccer has apparently seen the outburst for what it was – a tactic designed to boost Rodriguez’s spirits. Riley may yet replace the coach he so ardently attacked.

During his two years in Women’s Professional Soccer, there was little doubt Riley was the league’s best coach. He won consecutive Coach of the Year awards while taking teams with inferior talent to back-to-back championship games (including in Philadelphia’s expansion year of 2010). He skillfully manages to be both demanding and a players’ coach, adding the tactical acumen to leverage his players’ work and trust. Most tellingly, Riley managed to take an array of different attackers (Tasha Kai, Veronica Boquete, Rodriguez) and turn them into weapons, hinting his plans were as influential as the players’ talents.

Unlike Waldrum, Riley doesn’t have an extensive college background. He started his coaching career at C.W. Post – a small Division II program in Long Island – but left in 1997. From there he went into the U.S. semi-pro ranks, initially coaching in the PDL before switching to the women’s game. Like Sundhage, he’s a foreign-born, has significant domestic experience, and manages to be a personality (a completely different one than Sundhage) without putting himself center stage.

Gulati, however, hinted last week that all things being equal, U.S. Soccer would prefer an American coach. Does Riley qualify? He’s been in the United States for 30 years, but he was born in England. To some, he might not be as American as the Texas-born Waldrum, but how much “American” do you need to qualify? At some point, you’re either American or you’re not.

(Trivia: Waldrum and Riley were born two days apart in 1961.)

Right now, it looks like Waldrum’s college success (along with his time coaching the U.S. Women’s U-20 National Team) have given him the inside track, but Riley’s close enough to be considered a co-favorite. Barring a last minute surge from the pack, one of these two will win the race.

Barker mentions one of those pack members: former national team coach Tony DiCicco, who most fans will know for his work as an ESPN analyst during the 2011 World Cup. More recently, he spent two disappointing years as head coach of the Boston Breakers, results overshadowed by his role in guiding the U.S. to first at the 1999 World Cup.

The major concern with DiCicco would be the change in approach to him from Sundhage. On a spectrum of styles, DiCicco’s would be far removed from Pia Sundhage, a head coach whose close relationship with her players was a unique combination of peer and parent – one inspiring deep loyalty. As we saw on ESPN’s set last summer (in the relationship between Brandi Chastain and her former coach), DiCicco’s style is closer to a traditional coach-player relationship. With a veteran team coming off five years of Sundhage, switching to DiCicco may prove too drastic.