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Why Emma Hayes is the disruptor the USWNT needs

Soccer Football - Women's Champions League - Quarter Final - Second Leg - Chelsea v Olympique Lyonnais - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - March 30, 2023 Chelsea manager Emma Hayes celebrates after the match Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes is set to take over the USWNT after leading the Blues to 13 major trophies including six Women's Super League titles. (Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs)

The most alarming aspect of the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup flop was that, as dominance unraveled, and even as defeat sunk in, “blind confidence” reigned. It persisted within players who once sat atop their sport, even as European peers climbed past them. They knew they needed to improve after a dreadful draw with Portugal; asked why they believed they could, Julie Ertz said: “It’s what we do.” Five days later, after exiting the tournament earlier than ever before, Alex Morgan said she was “still hopeful with the future of this team.” Their potential, Lindsey Horan opined, remained “outstanding.” Lynn Williams added: “We’ll be back.”

But astute observers had opposing views. “The realities are, it is going to be very, very difficult for the U.S. to climb back to the top,” one wrote in The Telegraph two days before the USWNT’s loss to Sweden. “I’m not saying they won’t,” she continued, but “they will have to respond to this World Cup,” she concluded.

Her name was Emma Hayes.

And three months later, she’s the USWNT’s incoming coach.

Her deal is not quite finalized. U.S. Soccer remains locked in negotiations with Chelsea, her current employer, over the timeline and details of her USWNT takeover — because she remains committed to the London club through the 2023-24 season, which ends in May. The extent of her U.S. involvement between now and then remains unclear.

But at the very least, she’ll arrive full-time in late-May with extensive qualifications. Over 11 years, Hayes transformed Chelsea’s once-middling women’s team into England’s domineering force. She is a grinder but also an empathist, a master psychologist with experience handling superstars. She is an outsider but “made in America,” a seasoned tactician, and many other things that make her a near-ideal USWNT boss.

Perhaps her most important quality, though, is that she’s utterly unafraid to push uncomfortable truths.

She’s a savvy coach, but also a potential disruptor who’ll soon take charge of a program that desperately needs disrupting.

Hayes has observed its shortcomings from afar in recent years, and knows they extend far beyond one millimeter in Melbourne, or one generation of players. “It is not just about this team or this coach,” she wrote in August. “For the U.S., there needs to be a bigger conversation about their collegiate system and youth development as well as the NWSL.”

She went on to detail the college system’s insufficiencies. She called America “massively short of creative talent.” She wrote that Carli Lloyd’s comments, about the erosion of the USWNT’s culture, were “interesting” — but there were bigger issues. The U.S. didn’t have “the personnel” to break down well-organized opponents, she explained. And the NWSL, the domestic league where all but one of the USWNT’s World Cup roster played, “doesn’t offer enough diversity to their squad in terms of playing against different styles.”

She will find upon arrival that many branches of the American soccer establishment would dispute those points. She will find a league, the NWSL, that fancies itself as the most competitive in the world. She will find longtime college coaches who defend their importance. And she’ll find USWNT veterans who might bristle at any suggestion that their culture is flawed.

She’ll also find a fractured youth landscape governed largely by self-interest. It’s responsible for the developmental deficiencies she mentioned. And it’s devilishly difficult to fix. Hayes, as a senior coach reporting to a sporting director, likely won’t be able to reform it.

But she will hopefully be handed a Jurgen Klinsmann-esque mandate to reshape the American game. She probably knows more about it, and far more about women’s soccer generally, than her soon-to-be boss, U.S. Soccer’s new Welsh sporting director, Matt Crocker. She surely has ideas to improve it.

At the very least, she’ll be given platforms to express her opinions, and she surely won’t just parrot company lines. She will become a spokeswoman for the program, but not just a cheerleader for equality or for the U.S. Soccer Federation. She will broach discomforting topics such as, for example, whether USWNT stars should ditch the NWSL for Europe. She won’t shy away from tough conversations with veterans who, before long, will need to be replaced. If she believes that the team’s vaunted culture needs repairing, she will say so — and/or repair it.

She will, perhaps, be unconventional or even controversial. And there is no guarantee that she will succeed. Her lack of international experience could prove glaring. More importantly, her Aug. 4 words still ring true: “It is going to be very, very difficult for the U.S. to climb back to the top.”

But not impossible. Re-summiting the sport, Hayes wrote, will require “hard work and the right conversations around their model.” Now she has a chance, and a lucrative mandate, to lead those conversations and instigate the USWNT’s rebirth.