The U.S. women’s national team is a little adrift at the moment. The team has been playing under an interim manager as it waved goodbye to two iconic players one after the other in September, and has started integrating younger talents into the group while other big-name stars approach the later stages of their careers.
Amidst this transition period, midfielder and captain Lindsey Horan has been clear about the team’s priorities.
Depending on the outcome of U.S. Soccer’s final negotiations around the hiring of Chelsea’s Emma Hayes, as reported by The Athletic and others, Horan may not get her wish. It could very well be that Hayes would only take over the USWNT job after finishing out her season with Chelsea, which would in turn allow for extremely limited time to prep for Paris 2024.
In this potential timeline, Hayes would become available for stateside endeavors by May 19 at the earliest – that’s the day after the end of the season for the Women’s Super League, the domestic competition in which Chelsea competes. Hayes’ success in her last season at Chelsea could extend that timeline even further; the UEFA Women’s Champions League final takes place on May 25, and Chelsea made the semifinals of that competition last season.
The USWNT are hiring a serial winner in Emma Hayes – a coach with unfinished business in the U.S.
Until then, an interim coach (currently Twila Kilgore) would continue to lead the U.S. in the three international windows between now and Hayes’ potential debut. That would include the 2024 CONCACAF Gold Cup, which will feature potential matchups against regional rivals Canada as well as solid competition from South America in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Paraguay, and just as importantly, will help the team simulate tournament conditions.
While Hayes will likely finish out the season with Chelsea, a club to which she’s already given so much, should she do so, the time lost for the USWNT to acclimate to a new coach raises questions about U.S. Soccer’s own commitment to the Olympics – a major tournament in the women’s game that requires a cycle of preparation just like the World Cup. If Hayes isn’t available until May, players like Horan would be well within their rights to ask if this was U.S. Soccer ceding a realistic shot at capturing a gold medal in France.
The timing is all the more surprising because it would run counter to U.S. Soccer’s own stated plan, with sporting director Matt Crocker telling reporters in September that the federation was “on track to be in a position to have the head coach in place ready to support the team from early December.”
At that September meeting, Crocker denied the likelihood of installing a short-term coach to help the team through the Olympics before finding a more permanent candidate. He also said U.S. Soccer wanted to find a coach who would work in lockstep with the long-term plan that Crocker and others at the federation have been cooking up to advance player development.
Is USSF willing to gamble a bit on their Olympic preparations in order to entice their preferred candidate? In this May scenario, Hayes would have two FIFA windows, with two games in each, to settle in with the team, evaluate the roster, and get everyone playing in whatever styles she wants to use. Those two windows are May 27-June 4 and July 8-16, or approximately 18 days total, with that May camp coming right on the heels of the Champions League final. The Olympic games begin July 26, although historically the soccer tournament actually starts a little bit before the opening ceremonies in order to accommodate scheduling between games. In France, women’s group play should begin on July 25.
USWNT to hire Chelsea’s Emma Hayes as coach
That is an extraordinarily compressed timeline, especially when, ahead of the Olympics, it is arguably even more important than the World Cup to have a comprehensive grasp on the USWNT pool because of limited roster space. With only 18 players allowed to go to France, every single player on the roster has to be a difference-maker. There’s far, far less room for anyone who might only have 30 to 45 minutes on their legs, or for a player who might be coming more as a “locker room” value add. The roster margins for the Olympics are much finer – the U.S. learned this the hard way the last time around, as it fell to Canada in the semifinals and looked generally uninspiring throughout.
With the Olympics being a major tournament on the women’s side, success there can help drive popular support and development for the next couple of years among players, coaches, referees, and various stakeholders until excitement starts building for the next World Cup – something that Crocker himself pointed out in September.
And considering the recent introduction (or re-introduction) of newer players like Sam Coffey, Jaedyn Shaw, Mia Fishel, and Olivia Moultrie, this seems like a crucial time in the transition of the player pool after the retirements of veterans like Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe, as well as older players like Becky Sauerbrunn, Alyssa Naeher, and Alex Morgan – yes, even the vaunted Alex Morgan – entering the tail end of the careers. The short turnaround between World Cup and Olympics makes every single national team camp an important evaluation window, particularly for a coach who might be coming up to speed on not just the players, but also their environment and how they all mix in the locker room, while planning a transcontinental move.
Hayes is at least familiar with Fishel and the still-recovering Catarina Macario as both are Chelsea players. And she does have some familiarity with American players’ mindset – she has often credited her time in the U.S. at clubs like the Chicago Red Stars and the Western New York Flash for being a formative part of her coaching identity.
To be clear, Hayes would not be at fault for negotiating the best possible deal for her own circumstances. This is more a question of what U.S. Soccer is willing to concede. In reality, players spend the vast majority of their time with their club teams. It’s vital that the USWNT coach be able to monitor players at their clubs, and most USWNT players are in NWSL. Whatever his faults, former U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski was known for monitoring NWSL players, often traveling to watch them play in person. There’s only so much you can do through video, especially when you’re already giving your full focus to your own club.
It’s quite a compliment to Hayes that U.S. Soccer would even entertain being this patient in order to acquire her talents, and perhaps it speaks more to a level of trust in both Kilgore and in the player pool rather than a lack of faith in an Olympic run in 2024. But it might also suggest a diminished appeal to the position, or to a reduced bargaining position from U.S. Soccer in the aftermath of the World Cup, that they can’t demand their candidate be immediately available after tying up any loose ends or buying out contracts – especially considering USSF might be making Hayes the highest paid coach in international women’s soccer.
And that makes it even more crucial that U.S. Soccer has gotten this hire right. If the federation is bargaining for long-term success with a potential short-term underperformance at the Olympics, then they had better be sure they’ve stacked the odds for tangible progress and success in the years to come.
(Photo: Morgan Harlow – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)