Emma Hayes is ideal for the USWNT. But she would be walking into a pit of vipers
There are few people on earth as qualified as Emma Hayes to be the U.S. women’s national team coach.
The English built a juggernaut at Chelsea. Before that job, she gained coaching and consulting experience in the US, where she helped build a Western New York Flash team that won the last WPS Championship. She is a frequent presenter at the annual United Soccer Coaches convention, also in the US. No one has a better insight into where American players stand compared to their international peers.
So when news emerged that Hayes would be leaving Chelsea and likely heading to the US to take over as coach of the four-time world champions, the question wasn’t, “Why her?” The question: “Why would she take the job?”
Football can be cruel to national coaches. This can especially be women’s football cruel. U.S. women’s soccer could be even worse.
In the minds of the US women’s soccer media and fans, nothing is ever the players’ fault. It’s never the poor development pipeline – which is a serious problem in the US that has been exacerbated by the financial demands of current national team players (female And men) at the expense of any future players. It’s always the coach.
After all, national teams have more leeway to replace the coach than to replace the players who are tied to their country by birth or citizenship. The U.S. national team players, thanks to decades of media adulation, have an even greater influence than their counterparts elsewhere. Players can give a clear stamp of approval, as they did when Vlatko Andonovski was hired in 2019. But if a coach rocks the boat, the players get to pull out the knives and have a coach walk the plank. In 2014, US Soccer’s denials that a player revolt led to Tom Sermanni’s dismissal came across as the sound of a federation protesting too much. Jill Ellis had to survive an uprising to keep her job brilliantly, balancing the team’s egos and masking some weaknesses with good tactics to win the World Cup for the second time in a row in 2019. Even Pia Sundhage, who rebuilt the team after it collapsed during the 2007 World Cup, was criticized heavily.
Hayes may not face the same restrictions as her predecessors. Under previous labor agreements, US Soccer kept a core of players on salary, and changing that core was more complicated than simply saying it’s time to bring in Player X to replace Player Y. That is no longer the case under the new CBA, and Hayes has more freedom than previous USWNT coaches to choose the players she wants. She could also benefit from coming at a time when some of the old guard is on its way out – Megan Rapinoe has ended her international career and Alex Morgan is one of many players whose roster spots are certainly not guaranteed. The next two years will be one of the few times in the history of U.S. women’s soccer when the competition for spots is truly wide open.
But Hayes’ choices will still have limits she didn’t face at Chelsea, where the club’s deep pockets and financial commitment allowed it to build a virtual All-Star team. Last year Chelsea had nine players on the Guardian’s list of the world’s best 100 players. Pernille Harder and Magdalena Eriksson have since gone elsewhere, but Hayes simply added Ashley Lawrence, Mia Fishel and Catarina Macario.
With the USWNT, Hayes will choose from a deep but muddled talent pool full of players who struggled in the international youth game and looked naive at the World Cup this summer. Making the wrong choices wouldn’t just weaken the lineup on any given day. It would weaken her political capital in an atmosphere where fans, players and the media could quickly turn against her.
Hayes’ place in England is safe. She leaves a place where she is revered and respected – but so was Vlatko Andonovski.
Hayes has been a serial winner at Chelsea and has built a team and a club in her own image. “(Hayes) built everything at Chelsea,” Katie Chapman told the Guardian in 2021. “From having the equipment washed, to the food, to having our own building, to having our own practices and fields. Now it’s an absolutely professional setup, but it’s been a struggle to make that happen over the years. She always looks at how she can help everyone.” Will she have the same kind of oversight and influence at US Soccer as she did at Chelsea?
For an up-and-coming coach, the head coaching position in the US can be a dream job. It might as well be a nightmare. Why would an established coach like Hayes take that opportunity?
But while Hayes’ choice seems dangerous, it’s also a choice that’s hard to question. Her father recently passed away. A position in the national team, freed from the grind of domestic and European competition, may offer her more of the work-life balance she has publicly lamented not having today. If moving across the Atlantic seems best for her family, then it’s the right choice, period.
Of course, she would also be well compensated, and could end up making seven figures if she takes the job. She can also orchestrate a turnaround that would enhance her legacy. Where there is a crisis, there is also an opportunity.
And if Hayes made bad decisions on a regular basis, she wouldn’t have compiled such a stellar list of accomplishments. And if anyone can survive the pit of vipers into which a U.S. women’s national team coach is thrown, it’s Hayes.
American supporters can consider themselves very fortunate. This is a job that would turn off many good candidates, and for good reason. But one of the sport’s greatest authorities isn’t afraid of the challenge.