Look up Lauren Cheney on Wikipedia and you’ll find the first sentence of her bio is, “Lauren Nicole Cheney is an American soccer player, who plays midfield playmaker position for the United States women’s national soccer team.” That’s right, playmaker. Lauren Cheney turns 25 today, September 30, 2012. With an already astounding career including a 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medal, 2011 Women’s World Cup runner up, and a 2012 London Olympics gold medal, she has plenty left in the tank before anybody even thinks about muttering the word, “retirement”.
She started on the team young, only 20 years old. Right away she was handed possibly the hardest job on the USWNT as a forward, or any player for that matter. Fill in for an injured Abby Wambach. The 20 year old had to fill in for the most prolific goal scorer since Mia Hamm, oh, and she would fill in during the Olympics, the largest sporting event ever. She was substituted in for 3 games and won gold with the team. Starting out as a substitute in ’08, now she’s starting almost every game, growing as a player in front of our eyes.
Cheney has already made a name for herself, becoming one of the most versatile players on the squad. Going into the World Cup, Cheney was a forward. Then Pia decided to try her out in the midfield role. This would have been an easier transition if it was a friendly, but this was the very first game of the USWNT’s Women’s World Cup campaign and she was playing in a position she never had before. Apparently, she didn’t mind that much because she scored the first goal in a 2-0 victory. Thus began Cheney’s role as a midfielder.
Playmaker. That’s the best word to describe Lauren Cheney. It’s her ability to change the game, to put her teammates in a position to score; she can control the flow of the game. We’ve seen it before and I’m sure we’ll see it again. When she has an extremely good game, you can tell. She has a natural ability to calm down her teammates when they’re playing sloppy, to calm down the game when it’s too rough.
But what can also be seen is her kindness and compassion on the field. She’s always the first one to come over when a player is down, regardless the team, and makes sure they’re okay. She helps her teammates up, literally and emotionally. An example that will stay in my mind forever was when Abby had just been punched in the eye against Colombia. A few minutes later she was checked from behind. It was easily seen that Abby was close to boiling over (of course she didn’t) but Cheney went over to her right after she had fallen down, and picked her up around her waist. The 5’8” 24 year old was making sure the 5’11” 32 year old knew she was there for her. That’s not something you can teach, that’s something you’re born with. This uncanny ability to step in and know when your teammate and friend needs to know you’re there for them, regardless of if they say it.
Rampone is captain now, then Wambach will be, and then Lauren Cheney. It’s almost a given that Lauren Cheney will be a future Captain America. On the team since she was 20, a 2x gold medalist and World Cup runner up, a playmaker, a USWNT midfielder, and yet she still remains one of the most genuine, kind, and caring players in the game. Lauren Cheney can be described in four words: playmaker, leader, future captain.
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
Sports and life, intertwine. For some, sports become a way of life. You create memories that will last forever; you create friends that will be by your side. But just like life, sports can change. Nothing is permanent. Because times, well, they are a-changin’.
Pia Sundhage walked in to the room in 2007 and started singing. Yes, singing to a team that was on the brink of disaster. She saw the glass half full, saw a team that had been beaten down, she saw the opportunity to build it back up. Pia inspired the team. She inspired them to change their play, change their mentality. She brought in new players who ended up making the biggest impact. She was a breath of fresh air.
But like life, sports change. We had to know that eventually Pia would no longer be coaching here. This day came, it’s going to be hard to not be able to say Pia and the players, because no longer is Pia their coach. It’s odd to look at her biography on Wikipedia and see 2008-2012 United States Head Coach. But she left this team better than she found it. She taught each of them to play with a smile and play full of joy.
Pia broke down. After the video montage dedicated to her, we saw something we’d never seen before. Pia was crying. I think this was when it sunk in to everyone, not only the players but Pia, the coaching staff, and the fans, that this was the last time she would be standing on the field with the USWNT. Eyes of Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Heather Mitts, Kelley O’Hara, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath and many more welled up. This was her final bow. It was clear how much her players adored her, how much they loved her. She created such a strong bond with each and every one of them.
And just like she had during the pregame in Los Angeles 3 days ago, the team sang “You are my Sunshine” while Pia took her victory lap around the field. That’s because Pia was their sunshine. When things got cloudy or dark, Pia was their constant ray of light. She wanted each player to express themselves and be who they are on the field. Before they played their gold medal match against Japan in London, Pia said, “This is the life of your time. Do you.”
So now Pia is off to Sweden, the coaching job for the US is up for grabs. Who knows what the future holds. After 5 amazing years, Pia has stepped down. It’s hard to swallow right now, but we’ll see her again. Maybe she will be wearing blue and yellow rather than red, white, and blue, but this is another step in her journey and another step in the USWNT’s journey. For the times, they are a-changin’.
1) Incorporate her in every goal celebration. And not just by running over to her and hugging her, something creative. I’ll leave that up to the players that plan the goal celebrations (Megan Rapinoe, Heather Mitts, Abby Wambach) to decide.
2) Wear armbands that say, “Thank You Pia” or something along those lines.
3) Do a team sing-a-long at the end of the game.
4) Dump a jug of Gatorade on her like a team does when they win the Super Bowl.
5) Have all starting 11 players put a piece of paper in their sock with one word that makes up, “Thank You Pia For All You Have Done. We Love You.”
6) At the end of the game, have a combination of US and Australia players play a friendly scrimmage together with Pia. Or a shootout with Pia as one of the PK takers. She always looks like she wants to be on the field playing, let’s giver her a chance.
By now I’m sure we’ve heard or seen the Canada Women’s National Team interview with Christine Sinclair, Melissa Tancredi, Robyn Gale, and Erin McLeod. I watched it and I won’t say anything about it. I’ll let you decide what you want to think. I don’t really want to stir up a whole debate, that’s not who I am as a writer.
All I want to do is ask those players one thing. 30 years down the line, when you re-watch this interview, will you stand by and be proud of everything you said?
“Every person has the power to make others happy. Some do it simply by entering a room –others by leaving the room. Some individuals leave trails of gloom; others, trails of joy. Some leave trails of hate and bitterness; others, trails of love and harmony.
Some leave trails of cynicism and pessimism; others trails of faith and optimism.
Some leave trails of criticism and resignation; others trails of gratitude and hope.
What kind of trails do you leave?”
“The choices we make about the lives we live determine the kinds of legacies we leave.”
We might all be in a state of denial, anxiety, or just down right sobbing in the corner or the room listening to Coldplay’s “Fix You”, but we all must say it once out loud. So here it goes, everyone with me, “Pia…..Sundhage…..is….*gulp*…..lea……ving.” There, was that so bad? I’m with you on that one, it was. Right now, of course we can be upset, she’s been through it all with us. There might not be another coach who sings Simon and Garfunkel at a press conference, but instead of drowning our sorrows in a tub of vanilla ice cream while re-watching her fist pumps and infamous leaps from the bench, even thought that’s totally acceptable at the moment, let’s reminisce in the past, the time where we did get to celebrate with her.
When she first started, her main job was to come into a broken team, pick up the pieces, and turn them around. That’s no easy task but to think that all this had to be done in less than a year, it seemed impossible. Not to the Swedish international who loves to sing and is as laid-back as it gets. No, she saw a broken team yes, but a team that could be fixed. And fixed it was when they won gold in Beijing, hard to tell that less than a year ago some weren’t even talking to each other. Not only did she fix the team, she changed them in their play and comradery. So long the team relied on their sheer force and physical dominance. That was okay a decade ago, but the game has evolved, the world has caught up. Teams like Japan, France, and even Sweden give the US a run for their money every game. So Pia took the opportunity to change their style from physical to possession oriented football. Skeptical was everyone, but she backed it up by getting her team into the World Cup final, the first time since 1999, and earned a silver medal. She took it a step further by earning another Olympic gold in 2012. In her 5 years at the helm, she lost only 6 times.
Their comradery changed too. This team is closer than they’ve ever been. When they’re not with each other, they miss one another. In past years, they’ve been close, but under Pia, this team became a family.
But maybe what I’ll miss most about Pia is her personality. Never have I seen a coach literally leap into the air off the bench or fly from their seat in the air to the edge of their technical area. She is happy for her players if they score a goal, make a good play, or are playing well on the field. The glass is always half full for her. It’s never what we did wrong, it’s what we can improve on. She enjoys singing to her players and just living life to the fullest. That’s why she is one of the most genuine people in the world.
The USWNT players will miss her, the fans will miss her, everybody will miss her. And as tough a pill as it is to swallow, she’ll be coaching Sweden. It will be weird to see her in the blue and yellow rather than the red, white, and blue. But we must not overlook the overwhelmingly positive things she’s done for this team. If not for her, who knows what this team would have been like today. Gold, silver, gold with only 6 loses in 5 years is a pretty amazing track record. If we’ve learned anything from Pia, it’s to sing, dance, smile, laugh, and just enjoy ourselves. That’s a legacy I hope will carry on for future generations on the team, and forever.
“It was an honor to be able to coach these players for five years, and I learned a tremendous amount from them. I want to thank all the players and all of my assistant coaches for making me better. Before I took this job, I always admired the spirit and character of the U.S. team, but to experience that first-hand on the training field and from the bench as their coach was truly special and something I will treasure for the rest of my life. Although it is time to move on, I’d like to thank U.S. Soccer for this wonderful opportunity and I wish this team and the players all the best in the future.” -Pia Sundhage (Head Coach of the USWNT 2007-2012)