France US Netherlands WWCup Soccer

United States players celebrate their victory in the Women's World Cup final soccer match between US and The Netherlands at the Stade de Lyon in Decines, outside Lyon, France, Sunday, July 7, 2019. US won 2:0. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

Many consider the U.S. women’s national team the best squad in the world.

Coming off its fourth FIFA World Cup title, the team is trying to accomplish something no other women’s team has done before – win the Olympics after winning the World Cup.

Drawing on veteran leadership from prior World Cups and Olympic Games gives the United States its best chance at making history yet again when the Summer Games start in Tokyo next week.

One of those leaders is Erica Dambach, who is in her 14th year at the helm of Penn State’s women’s soccer program.

The only coach for the United States with Olympic coaching experience, Dambach knows what it takes to win the gold medal.

She’s done it already.

Dambach was an assistant coach under Pia Sundhage when the United States won gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, giving her a skillset and experience unique when compared to the other coaches with this year’s team.

Dambach draws on her Olympic experience daily as she works specifically with the defenders on the team, but she provides the coaching staff with much-needed expertise for game situations.

It’s an experience that led current USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski to Dambach for advice regarding a multitude of topics.

Dambach had no hesitation in her answer when Andonovski asked her to join the staff, and although she’s been here before, the experience is different and just as rewarding.

As the head coach for the U.S. U-17 from 2004-2007 and assistant for the U-19 national team in 2004, Dambach was already familiar with notable names on the 2021 Olympic team, including Tobin Heath, Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe.

“I’ve known some of these players for 15-plus years,” Dambach said. “I’ve watched them grow up in this system and grow from rookies into the incredibly impressive women that they are today. That’s incredibly rewarding to be just a small part of their journey.”

Dambach even gets to work with a former Nittany Lion player and current U.S. starting goalkeeper in Alyssa Naeher.

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“I had an opportunity to spend three years with [Naeher] in State College and since then have continued that relationship. As it’s gone on, I’ve really grown close with her, her family and enjoyed the opportunity to really get to know her and watch her become the best goalkeeper in the world.”

A 13-hour time difference doesn’t stop Dambach from keeping in contact with her team in State College, as she speaks with her staff and players over the phone and via Zoom to ensure the Nittany Lions are preparing as best they can for the fall.

Dambach praises her team for doing their best to prepare for the upcoming season and she has committed to do the same herself by learning everything she can in Tokyo.

“You can really have both feet firmly planted in this environment, but still keep your connections as that group prepares for preseason,” Dambach said. “This is a huge professional development opportunity. I’m working with the best coaches in the world, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you the amount of learning opportunities I’ve had up until this point.”

One takeaway Dambach noted is the evolution of the game since her last Olympics in 2008.

Through watching film and observing live games when the United States kicks off group play, Dambach plans to absorb strategies used at the highest level of soccer and bring those tactics back to her players in State College.

“In group play alone, we get an opportunity to see Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and the top teams in the world,” Dambach said. “This coaching staff is just full of talent and great minds. To just sit in that room and have a think tank, I can’t take in enough right now.

“There’s so much of it that I’ll be able to take back to Penn State and translate into the the Big Ten opponents and our out-of-conference opponents on our quest to win our next national championship.”

Dambach said the United States’ players know the expectations and the pressure they're under from the rest of the world to win gold in Tokyo.

But they embrace those high standards and use them as motivation.

“This team really doesn’t need more motivation to win and push,” Dambach said. “You can tell it fuels their fire to do something that no team has ever done. They love a good challenge. They take that pressure and they turn it into belief.”

As for Dambach, she’s embracing every moment in Tokyo alongside her colleagues and is optimistic about the United States’ chances to reign supreme at the Olympics.

“The pinnacle of a coaching career is an opportunity to represent your country,” Dambach said. “It’s a little bit surreal at times, and I’m just trying to soak in every moment of this journey.”

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