Sunday, June 16, 2024

Emma Hayes brings new energy, fresh outlook to USWNT but with instant sky-high expectations

After a six-month wait for her arrival, the U.S. women’s national soccer team has their new coach and delivered two victories for Emma Hayes in her first games on the sideline. The squad’s two-game series against South Korea were the final ones before the Olympic roster is announced. 

Rainy weather couldn’t even slow down the show as the USWNT welcomed Hayes with a four-goal win in Denver and closed out with a soggy, three-goal triumph in Minnesota where conditions made the London native feel like she was at home. 

“I was absolutely dying in Colorado the other day, sweating” she joked. “So this for me was absolutely heaven. I enjoyed it quick pitch, nights under the lights, great crowds brought great energy. I loved listening to the drum behind the goal. Felt like I was in Europe, so I better attend a few more MLS games while I’m here. I loved the atmosphere. It was brilliant.”

Now with two games behind her, Hayes’ tour has officially kicked off. But she’d hardly refer to herself as a rock star. She references her disdain for the pompous comparison in her audiobook, “Kill the Unicorn.” She also mentioned that she hates operating, as she puts it, in silos, so it came as no surprise that the most anticipated U.S. Soccer project of 2024 included not only Hayes but multiple members of her former Chelsea staff as the program looks ahead to new processes.

“I’m just building on what we’ve already introduced to the players and it doesn’t matter whether [they] play in Europe or the U.S.. It’s irrelevant. It’s making sure that there’s complete clarity coming from me to them on what their expectations are. And I think it’s been a really good coaching week from all of the coaches to deliver the information succinctly,” Hayes said about her first international window with the squad. 

“But I couldn’t have asked for any more of anyone this week. And for that reason, I feel happy. But now it’s between now and next camp. You’ve got to analyze all the things. You’ve got to get absolutely right leading into the Olympics.”

A coach unlike her predecessors

Hayes has been vocal about how her coaching role models differ from time to time. She’s mentioned admiration for her friends who are head coaches across other women’s sports like the University of South Carolina women’s basketball Dawn Staley and Duke University’s Kara Lawson.

She’s authentic and prides herself on the personality she brings into her new venture as USWNT head coach. She might bring a layer of intimidation for some in U.S. Soccer with her superior football IQ, but that’s almost refreshing for a 40-year-old program that just now feels like it’s welcoming new ideas.

During former head coach Jill Ellis’ time as manager, she referred to a changing of the guard during her time, that players reaching 150 or 200 caps was going to be a rarity moving forward and was met with discourse. She introduced some young players who are now staples, notably Rose Lavelle, Mallory Swanson, Tierna Davidsonroc, and Lindsey Horan, but her player pool was full of present-day talent and went on to win another World Cup in 2019 despite their 2016 Rio Olympics disaster. 

The Hayes era already feels different. There have been 11 different players to make their debut since their 2023 World Cup exit. Hayes’ lineup in her first game on the sideline was an average age of 25.5 and in the second game an average of 28. While the principles of making sure a balanced roster existed before her arrival, we’re watching it happen in real time. 

The beginning of the USWNT program got its start with talented teenagers who grew up with the team and became legends. Young players were slowly woven in typically through collegiate systems and time in youth programs, till a passing of a torch came with players who had hundreds of appearances to younger players who would also eventually earn hundreds of caps. 

A perception of not wanting to rush or overwhelm players with too much too quickly also became a part of U.S. Soccer culture, one that’s completely different from the rest of the globe, but if those same players just kept working hard, their time would eventually come.

The 2023 World Cup presented a roster with several players who were playing in their first ever World Cup and it went about as everyone expected. Former USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski was met with criticism, not so much over his roster selections, but in the way he utilized them. Not using the entire 23-player roster, a lack of in-game substitutions, and players still trying to figure out their roles during the tournament naturally led to a historic round of 16 exit. 

So when U.S. Soccer and sporting director Matt Crocker landed on Hayes, it was with very specific intention, to get the U.S. women’s program back on the track to success, compete at the Olympics,  and implement her principles. Her assets as an effective communicator and decision-making are key components of her coaching style. 

With Hayes, she’s already checking off items on USWNT fans’ wishlists. Integrate new players with less experience and play them? Done and still happening. Formational changes? Done and were shifted in the game. Rotate players? Used every substitution available and only two players weren’t utilized this window.

“One thing I have learned is, I really realized why this team is so special,” Hayes said on her first week with the USWNT.

“From the outside in, it always looked like that. But being on the inside is a really, really, special place. And when you’re in a special place, you can have lots of special moments and you saw it even again [Tuesday]. It’s really, really, difficult to play the same team in such a short space of time. I think the team has bought into what it’s gonna take for us to progress.”

Looking ahead to the Olympics

The former Chelsea manager is clear that the mutual respect and understanding between players, coaches, and staff will be driven by similar goals. She expressed that ahead of their final game against South Korea, she shared a sheet of all the things that define them because it’s during the hardest moments that one is reminded of their virtues. 

“It’s an adaptable team. It’s a resilient team. It’s a flexible team – is their words, not mine. And … I get excited by growth and I’m excited for our development together,” she shared with media during post-game comments.

Hayes now has to name a final Olympic roster, deadline for all teams by July 3, but some national teams will likely announce ahead of that date. 

She’s been non-stop since her arrival in New York on May 30, and the coach revealed that there will be a staff meeting after the South Korea matches for reflection and preparing a project plan for next camp, and preparing timelines through the Olympics. It’ll be a plan for her and the staff, and won’t be shared with players until the final roster is selected. 

Then she’s going to take some time to rest, only for a moment, till she’s back in New York for the squad’s Olympic send-off games. So, it’s not quite relief that she feels now that her first games are in the record books.

“I genuinely feel excitement. When I think of relief, I remember what it’s like to win a title, and you get to the end and you think, that’s relief. I feel something very different. I feel like I really can have a big influence on this group. In turn, they’re going to have a big influence on me. And I told them that today, that now I haven’t stopped smiling all week,” she said.

“Of course, I’ve visualized what this would be, coming here. And I know the importance of this team from the outside, but being on the inside. I genuinely value everything it’s about, and I just, I genuinely want to do everything, to do my best for the shirt. I feel such pride in doing that. But also they’ve welcomed us all, you know I’ve brought staff in from all over the world, and we’ve felt really welcomed. We’re newbies. So having to lead but also be new, it can be daunting, but I’ve felt supported from the very beginning and that gives me great confidence.”

Ready or not, Hayes is here to help push U.S. Soccer into the global game in ways it’s not used to and that’s a good thing. The federation needed to make a statement hire, and it did that by getting one of the winningest coaches out of Europe, a mega-signing, to show that the program wouldn’t remain stagnant, but still be leaders in elevating the game for women and reaching even higher standards for the red, white and blue.

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