USWNT nears big-time coaching hire: Chelsea's Emma Hayes

Soccer Football - Women's Super League - Reading v Chelsea - Madejski Stadium, Reading, Britain - May 27, 2023 Chelsea manager Emma Hayes celebrates with the trophy after winning the Women's Super League Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
Emma Hayes has won trophy after trophy at Chelsea. (Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley)

Chelsea coach Emma Hayes will leave her job at the end of the 2023-24 season and reportedly become the next head coach of the U.S. women's national team.

Chelsea announced Saturday, abruptly, that Hayes would be leaving the club at season's end "to pursue a new opportunity outside of the [English Women's Super League] and club football."

Reports quickly surfaced that the "new opportunity" is the USWNT job, which has been vacant since Vlatko Andonovski resigned in the wake of the 2023 World Cup.

U.S. Soccer has been searching for a replacement ever since, and targeting a hire prior to two friendlies in early December. The search, led by sporting director Matt Crocker, reached the final stages in October, with Australia's Tony Gustavsson reportedly a leading candidate — but he was hesitant to move to Chicago, as U.S. Soccer hoped its new coach would.

Instead, Crocker apparently wooed Hayes, one of the most respected coaches in the women's game. The hire hasn't been finalized, a source told Yahoo Sports; Hayes' contract still must be approved by U.S. Soccer's board. But that could happen over the coming days.

Hayes built her stellar résumé over 13 seasons at Chelsea. She transformed a grievously underfunded, part-time team into the dominant force in England. Since 2015, she's won six WSL titles and five FA Cups. She was named FIFA's women's coach of the year in 2021.

She also knows the United States. Hayes, a London native, actually began her coaching career in the U.S., first with the pre-professional Long Island Lady Riders, then with Iona College. After a stint back in London as an assistant at Arsenal, she helmed the Chicago Red Stars in the Women's Professional Soccer League from 2008-2010, then worked briefly for the Western New York Flash.

Since taking over at Chelsea in 2012, she has also coached multiple USWNT players — including Crystal Dunn and, now, Cat Macario and Mia Fishel.

So, familiarity with the American game won't be an issue. The chief concern is that Hayes has never coached a national team.

A decade ago, that wouldn't have mattered, because the USWNT operated very much like a club team. But women’s soccer has evolved in recent years. Players now spend the vast majority of their time with professional clubs; the USWNT convenes far less frequently. The game has moved in the direction of men’s soccer, where it’s widely acknowledged that a club coach and a national team coach do very different jobs. One can choose a system, acquire players who fit within it, and implement it day after day. The other works with a finite player pool and far less time to actually coach it.

Therein lies Hayes' biggest challenge. Over the past half-decade at Chelsea, she had more talent at her disposal than most, if not all, of her coaching counterparts. In the U.S., she'll work with a fixed player pool that's deep and supremely skilled but also flawed.

But if there's any longtime club coach who can adapt to the international game, and make up for Crocker's lack of women's soccer experience, and guide a declining program back to the top of the sport, it's Hayes.

It's unclear whether the 47-year-old will take charge of the USWNT immediately, on a part-time basis, until May, when the WSL season ends. She will continue to live and coach in London, but could travel to the U.S. for week-long stints during FIFA windows, when club soccer pauses and players disperse to their national teams. (There's one that begins in late November, then another in February and a third in April.) Or, U.S. Soccer could bridge the gap with an interim coach — either Twila Kilgore, the current interim, or another assistant already tied to the federation.

At the very latest, Hayes will be at a training camp in late May, which begins shortly after the UEFA Women's Champions League final. She'll then lead the USWNT into the 2024 Paris Olympics — the team's first real chance to bounce back from its worst-ever World Cup.