Eight months ago Pia Sundhage was asked to shoulder a heavy burden. Her charge: change the philosophy of the US women's national team, revive a side troubled by internal dissension and deliver it from the long-ball tactics of previous coach Greg Ryan.
Never one to shrink from a challenge, Sweden's all-time top scorer embraced it as an opportunity. "I was hired to make a change," the first non-American coach of the USA women told FIFA.com. "It was tricky. I had to change things enough so that people would notice, but not too much change that it would confuse the players."
The new coach will be forced to change the direct style of predecessor Ryan after towering striker and top scorer Abby Wambach broke her tibia and fibula in a friendly win over Brazil on Wednesday, and will be unavailable for the upcoming Olympics. Even with such a devastating blow, Sundhage is confident that her devotion to slick passing and stylish possession football will still be effective.
"These kinds of big changes usually take years," chuckled Sundhage, who coached the Boston Breakers of the now-defunct WUSA and Orebro in her native Sweden. "
"We want to be a little more sophisticated about getting the ball up the field than in the past," Sundhage, WUSA coach of the year in 2003, added. "We want to dictate the tempo of the game."
Pia took over the US team at a difficult time. With the old guard of the Mia Hamm-Julie Foudy generation virtually all gone, the Swede is overseeing a mixture of youth and experience, while also working to heal the wounds of a demoralising FIFA Women's World Cup last year.
She was hired immediately following the USA's humiliating 4-0 elimination at the hands of Brazil in the semi-final of China 2007, before which a well-publicised row between number-one keeper Hope Solo and then-coach Ryan over the coach's decision to drop Solo in favour of Briana Scurry.
Now, heading into the Olympics in Beijing, a tournament the US have dominated with two golds and one silver medal in the past three instalments, Sundhage is convinced that the problems are firmly in the past.
"This is a happy and confident team right now," she said. "The Olympics is a big deal in America, in many ways a bigger deal than the World Cup, and the players are in good spirits and ready to go."
With Wambach sidelined, youth product Amy Rodriguez is likely to play a more prominent role. The heavily-tattooed, jet-heeled Natasha Kai will also be expected to help out upfront. In a positive omen, both Rodriguez and Kai scored winners in recent friendly victories over Brazil.
The midfield is marshalled by Shannon Boxx with Christie Rampone and Heather Mitts expected to lead the rearguard.
Another test for Sundhage's women in Beijing will be the absence of evergreen Kristine Lilly. The 129 times-capped, 36-year-old captain, pregnant with her first child, will play no part. "I can't think of the last time the US went to a major tournament without Lilly," Sundhage remarked. "You can't replace a player like that. But this team is about being a unit and winning together as one team."
As for the end to the Women's finals last year, the Swedish boss is sure the acrimony is done and dusted. "I could have ignored the situation, but that would have been naive. Brianna Scurry and Hope Solo are both still in the team because we need good keepers. I listened to everyone's' story and then I told the players: ‘I want to win'. I asked them, ‘do you want to win?' The answer was ‘yes' and we moved on from there."
The US will meet Japan, Norway and New Zealand in the group stage in China. With the Americans fancied to win the section, fans will be hoping the new coach's passion for the beautiful game catches on among the players.
"I have really tried to impress on them that football has to be fun," Sundhage concluded. "Footballers don't perform, they play. They are not machines and they need to realise that football is not just about trophies and medals, but about passion and taking chances."