After their early exit at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the United States national team is in dire need of renewal and Chelsea coach Emma Hayes has been tasked with the job.
The 47-year-old has been a trailblazer in England and observers say the “outsider” could be the breath of fresh air that the US women’s game needs.
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For decades, the US team has been a leader in women’s football, having won the World Cup four times.
After successive triumphs in 2015 and 2019, there had been high hopes from them to complete a “three-peat” of titles at this year’s World Cup, but the Americans were knocked out in the last 16, losing to Sweden on penalties.
The shock exit raised questions over the performance of coach Vlatko Andonovski, who later resigned, with Twila Kilgore taking over as interim coach.
Earlier this month the US Soccer Federation announced that Hayes will take charge of the US team two months before the 2024 Paris Olympics after she leaves Chelsea at the end of this season.
The US job will be the first time Hayes has taken charge of a national team. But as one of the most influential coaches in the women’s game, she boasts a highly impressive CV.
Hayes has helped turn Chelsea into the dominant force in English women’s football, guiding them to six Women’s Super League titles – including the last four in a row – five Women’s FA Cups and two Women’s League Cups since she took charge in 2012.
She also led them to the Women’s Champions League final in 2021, the same year she was named FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year.
Before Chelsea, Hayes worked in US football with Long Island Lady Riders, Iona Gaels and the Chicago Red Stars.
Brandi Chastain, a two-time world champion with the US, said it’s an “intriguing” appointment that will challenge the USWNT, who have slipped from first to third in the FIFA world rankings since the World Cup.
“I’ve heard she’s a stickler for the details about the growth and development of the players, and a certain style of play,” she said.
“I think it will be a great challenge for the players. I don’t know if they’ve been challenged outside of their comfort zones in a long time.”
Hayes is known for her direct and attacking approach but adapts tactics and formations to the players at her disposal, and observers say she boasts excellent people management skills.
“Hayes’s style of football is very much like her, direct,” Canadian sports journalist Mariam Kourabi said. “There is a heavy emphasis on quick movement of the ball, making the most out of possession and being clinical everywhere.
“Fast and effective football is what made the USWNT terrifying for many years, which is exactly what they have lost, but is what Hayes enforces.”
Kourabi, also the founder of the SHE scores bangers podcast, praised Hayes’s willingness to make bold decisions – something she said ex-USWNT coach Andonovski failed to do, particularly with substitutions.
“Hayes is particularly known to turn things around when trailing behind, even if it means taking a player off only 30 minutes in.”
American sportswriter Jeff Kassouf said that Hayes is uniquely positioned as someone familiar with the US setup and player pool but something of an “outsider” at a time when the team needs new ideas.
“Hayes has proven herself to be one of the best managers in the world. She is unafraid of failure in the short term if it means finding the right long-term answers, as she has shown with her tactical flexibility at Chelsea,” Kassouf said.
“The USWNT needs that more than ever. The Americans have recently looked rigid and almost afraid of improvisation, which is needed in big games.”
Team in transition
The US team is currently in a transitional phase after veteran players Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz and Ali Krieger announced their retirements. The Americans boast a wealth of young talent in Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and others, but they are yet to reach their peak.
The onus now lies on Hayes to ensure the US can perform at the Paris Olympics, held in July and August next year.
“Hayes has developed plenty of youngsters into stars under her guidance such as Niamh Charles, Ji So-yun, Hannah Blundell and Lauren James now,” Kourabi said.
“She has also played a huge role in unleashing potential from already established players like Sam Kerr, Guro Reiten and Magdelena Eriksson.
“She is one of the most versed in coaching both the rookies and the veterans, which is exactly what the current USWNT in transition needs.”
While ex-USWNT player Chastain believes that Hayes will bring “a breath of fresh air” to the team, she said that the English coach will also face a huge challenge in implementing her methods in just two months before the Olympics.
“If the communication starting now towards that date is open, it’s clear, it helps the players who are either on the roster right now, or she believes should be on the roster, then they can get an idea of what she wants all the positions to look like,” Chastain said.
Kassouf, founder of The Equalizer, a website on women’s football in North America, said Hayes might not have enough time to prepare the team for the Games, but an Olympic medal should not be ruled out.
“The coach and player talent is there. Crazier things have happened,” Kassouf said. “[But] this hire is clearly about winning the 2027 World Cup, and that’s a fine concession to make.”
While Hayes’ appointment will change things for the US team, it is also a landmark moment for the women’s game.
US Soccer has announced Hayes will become the highest-paid women’s football coach in the world, though the governing body did not reveal details about her salary.
The Athletic reported last week that Hayes will be paid 1.6 million pounds ($2m) – the same as the US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter.
The move would be a major victory in a long struggle towards pay parity for women in football.
In February 2022, the US national women’s team won a $24m payout and a pledge from US Soccer to equalise pay for the men’s and women’s national teams in all competitions, in a landmark settlement that ended a six-year legal battle over equal pay.
Chastain said the move to ensure pay parity for male and female coaches was “a long time coming”.
“There have been stumbling blocks earlier … but now, we don’t have to justify it to anyone that a woman should be paid for equal work to her counterpart.”
Kourabi said Hayes has long been a trailblazer in raising the standards in women’s football by advocating for increased prize money for competitions, pushing for games in big stadiums for larger crowds, and breaking transfer records with signings such as Pernille Harder and Lauren James at Chelsea.
“The US Soccer Federation was the first, after many fights, to strike equal pay, equity, and increased pay for their international teams. This is two torchbearers coming together,” she added.
While the US is at the forefront of pay parity for coaches, other higher-ranked teams have a long way to go.
The German women’s coach reportedly makes 300,000 pounds ($377,000) annually, while the men’s coach is paid 5.6 million pounds ($7m). England’s women’s head coach is paid 400,000 pounds ($503,000), while the men’s coach earns 5 million pounds ($6.3m).
Chastain said US Soccer’s move to pay Hayes the same as her male counterpart will push other federations to do the same.
“I do believe that every country or governing body will have to take note and sit up and say, ‘Okay, this matters. We can’t pretend like women’s football isn’t viable, isn’t important, or doesn’t meet the standard of our men’s side.’”