Emma Hayes can lead USWNT to Olympic gold despite delayed start
TThe only hesitation anyone at US Soccer could have had about the appointment of Emma Hayes as coach of the women’s national team would be the timing. Hayes will remain at Chelsea until the end of the club season. Then she only has four competitions left before the 2024 Olympic Games.
The consensus in the American football world most directly expressed by longtime American player Tobin Heath, is that the US is essentially sacrificing a chance at Olympic gold for the greater good.
Don’t be too sure. Four games, four days – it hardly matters. Hayes can absolutely lead the American team to gold in Paris next year. For a rough precedent, we can consider 2008.
Ten months before the Olympics, the American program was in serious disarray. Coach Greg Ryan has lost just one of his 55 games in charge (45 wins, nine draws), but that one defeat was less a loss than an implosion. Going into the 2007 World Cup semi-finals, Ryan decided to bench goalkeeper Hope Solo for reasons that have evolved over time, from arcane on-field assessments to vague off-field incidents. No goalkeeper could have prevented the subsequent 4–0 defeat, given Brazil’s then overwhelming superiority, but Solo went out of her way to lament the decision and suggest that the result would have been different had she been in the spot played. by Briana Scurry. Solo was removed from the team for committing the cardinal sin of throwing a teammate – a beloved teammate – under the bus.
Then comes coach Pia Sundhage, a guitar-strumming Swede who somehow managed to bridge the gap that had opened up within the American camp. Solo returned to the squad and quickly became the dominant goalkeeper she would be in the years to come. Any dissatisfaction was kept within the ranks of the team.
Yes, Sundhage had more time than Hayes. But she also suffered a late twist: U.S. striker Abby Wambach broke her leg in the final match before the Games.
Sundhage reshuffled the attack around Angela Hucles, a backup midfielder for much of her American career, and the emerging Carli Lloyd scored the match-winner in the final against the same Brazilian team that had toured the US less than a year earlier.
Coaches can only exert so much control, and Sundhage benefited from a few bits of luck. Although she lost Wambach, she had a healthy defense, and oft-injured right back Heather Mitts was in excellent form.
But Sundhage also had a few obstacles that Hayes won’t have to deal with. The 2008 player pool had several limitations. Players were locked into contracts, and benching or omitting a popular player meant risking the wrath of teammates, fans and the media. Thanks to the lack of professional football in the US and a lack of opportunities abroad, players who were not included in the contracted pool at the end of their college careers often found themselves out of the game.
Hayes will have no shortage of players she can call or drop at her discretion. With the exception of centre-back Naomi Girma and captain Lindsey Horan, all the names in the 2024 starting line-up could be penciled in, and even Horan’s place could be in jeopardy if Sam Mewis is ever able to regain her fitness and form. The older players at the World Cup have either retired or shown that they are no longer irreplaceable. The younger players – again, apart from Girma – have not done enough to make a solid claim for international playing time.
The NWSL Best XI only has several players who can compete for places. There are many more in the league who are on their way to the top. A few national team-worthy players are based in Europe.
Wherever she spends the next six months, Hayes will know them all. Exploring the US player pool is a task that neatly overlaps between her current and future jobs. In all her years of building Chelsea into a major player, she is said to have paid close attention to all the top American players and prospects. She already has two, Mia Fishel and Catarina Macário, on her roster at Chelsea.
Long term, Hayes has a long to-do list. She will have to put an end to the complacent attitude in the U.S. women’s soccer community that made excuses for seemingly unfortunate losses in 2023 while ignoring the team’s good fortune in previous years. She will need to be an advocate for changing the youth soccer landscape in the U.S., encouraging clubs to put aside their quest for national rankings and glittering trophies long enough to develop players who can match their more advanced counterparts in Europe. After the Olympics, win or lose, she will have to figure out which players will remain as cornerstones for future World Cup success.
In the short term, the task is easier. Watch her future team play, with an eye on selecting the perfect group for the Olympics. She can do it without the attention of fans and media who have their own favorite players and aren’t shy about saying so.
For once in American women’s history, the coach isn’t the one who has to prove herself. Hayes is a winner with an unsurpassed knowledge of the sport. The players, on the other hand, are about to embark on the most grueling tryouts of their lives over the next six months. Whoever emerges will be more than ready to face an Olympic field that will exclude many dangerous European teams, and Hayes will be more than ready to lead them to the podium, perhaps even the top step .