Now that Emma Hayes is officially the next head coach of the U.S. women’s national team, she faces quite a tall order from a team and fanbase that have historically demanded nothing short of total domination, whether realistic or not. The team she’s taking on is also at a fork in the road, not just due to the latest wave of retirements (including Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe), but it’s also clear they need a tactical and emotional refresh after the 2023 Women’s World Cup after the team’s worst finish in tournament history.
There’s some question of the timeline for when Hayes will begin working with the USWNT, given she’s only available to the team starting in May and will have just two international windows to prepare for the 2024 Paris Olympics. With both short- and long-term implementations, everything that Hayes and U.S. Soccer have said so far about her tenure is focused on the long-term goals as the priority.
It has come across as ceding any major focus on the Olympics in favor of setting up for the 2027 World Cup. That in itself is perhaps a signal from U.S. Soccer that its new hire can focus more on process rather than worry about results, a smart signal to send in the wake of a World Cup that seemed just as much about former coach Vlatko Andonovski’s unwillingness to take risks as it was about a subpar performance on the field or team chemistry. Delaying gratification now for more permanent gains that come from an embedded culture rather than a quick fix is (on paper) justifiable.
With that in mind, here are a few things Hayes will have to jump into with both feet when she eventually joins the U.S.
1. Optimizing style of play to the players she has (or vice versa)
This sounds obvious, but as mentioned before, Hayes’ predecessor grew increasingly dogmatic about his formations after the Olympics and leading into the World Cup. You could almost set your watch by it: here comes the USWNT in a 4-3-3, where the primary tweaks would involve substituting the wingers and hoping that would change things up enough.
As my colleague Jeff Rueter analyzed, Hayes has been flexible in the past couple of years with Chelsea, and that’ll be crucial in a period when the U.S. should be getting its young players more caps as well as bringing in even more new players, whether before or after the Olympics.
How Emma Hayes’ winning ways at Chelsea can benefit USWNT on the field
USSF CEO JT Batson said that sporting director Matt Crocker is currently working on a transition plan in the same way that he worked with USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter. “They’re planning out a strategy for the long term as well as for the short term and we’ll be talking more about it over the coming weeks and months,” Batson said to the broadcast crew after the USMNT game on Thursday.
Which leads us to:
2. Growing the talent pool
To be fair to Andonovski, several players who look to be part of this team’s core talent for years to come came in under his tenure. Naomi Girma, Trinity Rodman, Sophia Smith and Alyssa Thompson earned their first caps under Andonovski. Interim head coach Twila Kilgore has kept up some of that momentum calling up players like Jaedyn Shaw, Mia Fishel and Olivia Moultrie. And there are others like Savannah DeMelo, Sam Coffey, Jaelin Howell and still-rehabbing Catarina Macario who deserve further evaluation.
Hayes needs to take that forward movement and start sprinting.
Again, to be fair, it seems that U.S. Soccer is more than aware that this needs to be a primary focus for the organization from the top down. In September, Crocker told reporters he wanted national team coaches to have “robust development plans” and that the federation is developing a playing style that can be more applicable across programs and age ranges. Batson also said that Hayes has signed a “long-term contract.”
“We want a coach who will be with us for the long haul,” he said on the USMNT postgame show. “We think there’s an incredible opportunity to take the team to new heights and it’s not something that we’re focused on just tomorrow. We’re focused on 5-10 years from now.”
Particularly after the Olympics, it would be great to see some big training camps with many new, or newer, names.
3. Locker room harmony
Amidst all of these new names, perhaps even harder than getting the tactics right will be nailing the locker room vibe. After the World Cup, team captain Lindsey Horan went on the RE-CAP show with Tobin Heath and Christen Press and implied that the players were responsible for the positive changes on the field in their round of 16 loss to Sweden. Perhaps the players will be relieved and welcome a change or perhaps they’ll still be skeptical of the coaching staff in the wake of the World Cup.
The start of Hayes’ tenure doesn’t necessarily need to be like when former coach Pia Sundhage came in and sang Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” but she will need to be mindful that this is a USWNT coming off a stinging, even somewhat embarrassing, international tournament, without several veterans, and with their own thoughts on not getting a new coach until the cusp of the Olympics. Hayes has certainly garnered the respect of her current players — speaking about her coach’s departure, Chelsea captain Millie Bright said, “As a player and a person, I was devastated.” But an international locker room, particularly for a historically successful team with a lot of big personalities, is its own beast.
Hayes said in a presser on Friday that she hadn’t spoken to U.S. players yet, which is unsurprising given her continued focus on Chelsea’s season. But a handover plan can only go so far; trust is earned in the working environment, usually under pressure. It would be a true test for Hayes and the players if some of that trust-building had to come during the Olympics.
(Photo: Lewis Storey/Getty Images)