Steve Swanson will begin his 20th season in charge of the Virginia women’s soccer program next month. During his tenure, the Cavaliers have won nearly 300 games and reached the NCAA Round of 16 in 14 straight seasons.
Swanson spent this summer as an assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team during their run to a second straight FIFA Women’s World Cup title.
He served as an assistant under head coach Jill Ellis during the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015 in Canada and again this summer in France.
“It was a wonderful adventure,” Swanson said. “It was an amazing amount of work and a lot of smiles at the end.”
The UVa coach has been involved with the U.S. women’s soccer program in some capacity since 1999. Swanson was responsible for youth teams through 2005 before taking a break to focus on family and his coaching career at Virginia.
The veteran coach returned in 2011 and guided the U.S. U-20 team to the World Cup in 2012 and the U-23 squad the following year. When Ellis, a William & Mary alum, was named head coach of the national team, he joined her staff.
Since then, he’s experienced the highs and lows of international soccer. In 2015, he watched as Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach led the U.S. to the FIFA World Cup title. A year later, Swanson experienced the disappointment of the United States’ loss to Sweden in the 2016 Olympics.
Swanson joined the U.S. national team full time in January and has spent the past seven months working with Ellis and the others on staff to devise a plan to bring home the World Cup.
Ellis was responsible for the team’s defensive scheme, Tony Gustavsson developed the attacking pieces and the set plays and Graeme Abel was in charge of goalkeeping and defending set pieces.
Swanson’s responsibilities were fluid.
“My roles changed over my time with them,” he said. “I was involved with all on-field activities. I would help on the attack and defensive side. My other duties revolved around preparing opponents scouting and preparing game plans. We do that as a staff together and I would present that to the team. It’s hard to describe, but it was a very team-oriented approach to how we coached.”
The plan worked beautifully.
The U.S. easily won Group F at the World Cup, including a 2-0 victory over Sweden, to advance to the knockout stage.
In the group stage, Swanson watched as three of his former players at Virginia took the pitch for the United States. Defender Becky Sauerbrunn started every game of the tournament, while midfielder Morgan Brian and defender Emily Sonnett, who battled through myriad injuries to make the squad, saw action in the match with Chile.
Swanson took a lot of pride in watching his former players have success on the world stage.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “In 2015, I went to it with Morgan and Becky, but this time it was special to have all three of them and they all made huge contributions. Becky was an integral part [defensively] and Emily has been a big part of this team for the last couple of years. Morgan’s situation was in doubt, but to her credit, to come back and make the team was a real testament to her. All three were big parts of the team and tremendous representatives of Virginia soccer.”
The World Cup did present its share of challenges, particularly when it came to games between matches. The tournament started on June 7, but the U.S. didn’t play its first game until June 11. Swanson said it presented challenges for the coaches and training staff in terms of utilizing the players.
“We played seven games in about five to six less days than any other team in the tournament,” Swanson said. “When we played Spain in the Round of 16, they had three more days rest than us. When we played France, they had an extra day of rest and the same with England. The only day we had an extra day was the finals against the Dutch and you could see that on the field. That is not an easy tournament to navigate.”
Another memorable part of the tournament was the overwhelming support of the fans at games. Swanson said that this World Cup felt like it was going to be more competitive, with more teams than ever before that could win the title.
“We certainly felt supported,” Swanson said. “A lot of American fans were at all the events and the atmosphere at the games were incredible. You could sense there was more spirit behind the fan base and the atmosphere was electric.”
No where was this more evident than the Americans’ quarterfinal game against host France in Paris.
“I felt a real honor to be involved in that game,” Swanson said. “We were not the home team in that game for sure and that environment was special. So many people were watching and it was the most sought-after ticket. That environment showed how far women’s soccer has come.”
That spotlight wasn’t just on the players. Swanson said the coaches felt plenty of pressure in the knockout stages as well. From juggling lineups in the midfield early in the tournament to the decision to sit Megan Rapinoe against England due to a hamstring injury, it put the coaching staff to the test.
But whether it was Christen Press’ goal in place of Rapinoe or goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher’s penalty kick save against England, Ellis’ seemed to have the Midas Touch.
“I’ve known Jill for a long time and she deserves a lot of credit for the decisions she made,” Swanson said. “The public isn’t aware of all the decisions that go on and I think Jill had to make the hard and difficult decisions and I think she deserves a lot of credit for picking a coaching staff that was built to last. There was a real camaraderie and everyone accepted their roles. There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong.”
With the collection of talent on the U.S. women’s team, it’s easy to get lost in their accomplishments. From Alex Morgan’s five-goal game against Thailand or Rose Lavelle’s game-clinching goal against the Netherlands in the finals, Swanson admits it was fun to watch.
“You work very hard to put your team in positions to perform like that,” he said. “But I think it’s a unique skill set to be able to do it consistently where you’ve got competitive teams and great individual players and a huge television audience. It’s one thing to do that in practice, and this team’s ability to handle pressure and turn it in to something., to see that happen is truly special.”
One of the more memorable moments of the tournament for Swanson had nothing to do with any action on the pitch. On the bus trip back to the hotel, the U.S. bus turned down a road with a group of approximately 100 Dutch supporters and the group stopped in unison.
“They walked together to the curb and stood and clapped,” Swanson said. “It was an amazing sign of respect and made you feel good about the sport. Here’s another country’s fans that could appreciate the game and quality of play between two extraordinary teams and giving their support. It was amazing.”
The players also took time to savor the moment.
“On the way back to the hotel, the players were all singing and they would single out each member of the staff, individually and thanked them for their contribution to the team,” Swanson said. “It showed the caliber of players and how they cared about one another and every member of our organization and to our success.”
After nearly seven moths with the national team, Swanson is back in Charlottesville and hopes to use the World Cup win as motivation this fall as he leads the Cavaliers.
“It’s an education for me,” Swanson said. “I’ve been fortunate to be on three world championships teams, but I consider myself a coach that’s still learning, trying to grow and do right by the players and the university you coach. My task every day is how can I be the best coach I can be to help the players develop and reach their goals.”
“That’s part of what I enjoy about coaching,” he continued. “The consistent ability to get better and you realize you can’t do that alone. I feel very fortunate I’ve been involved in the [U.S.] team over the years and my hope is that the team at Virginia has benefited. I’m very fortunate that I’m at a school like Virginia that will allow me to do this. I feel like I’ve learned an awful lot. I’ve listened and learned and I think I’m a better coach for coaching in that environment. Hopefully I can continue to give back to the program in the ways that I’ve been blessed to receive.”