USWNT badly needed a reboot. New coach Emma Hayes is one who can do it

There’s a reason Emma Hayes was worth the wait for the U.S. women’s team.

That she’s a proven winner is obvious. Six months after her hiring was announced, Hayes began her new job this week after winning a fifth consecutive Super League title, and seventh in 12 years, with Chelsea on Saturday. She’s a masterful tactician (see previous sentence) and, given the Who’s Who of players who’ve been at Chelsea, knows how to manage personalities and get the best out of all of them.

But as Hayes made the rounds of media in New York on Thursday, what stood out most was her confidence and unflinching honesty. She knows she’s the best at what she does and isn’t afraid to own that.

Fans of the USWNT will recognize the trait because it’s what the team had for so long — and what it’s been sorely missing since the 2019 World Cup.

“If we can perform at our best level, then we have a chance of doing things. But we’ve got work to do,” Hayes said in a meeting with reporters. “The realities are, the world game is where it is and the rest of the world do not fear the USA in the way that they once did. And that’s valid. I think that’s valid.

“It’s our job to grasp quite quickly what we need to do to get close again to those levels.”

Yes, the U.S. women are four-time world champions and spent much of the last three decades as the world’s undisputed No. 1 team. But if we’re all being honest, they haven’t looked like themselves since they left France in 2019 soaked in champagne and confetti stuck to their skin.

They used to walk onto the field with a swagger that could be mistaken for arrogance if they didn’t have the results to back it up. They had more talent and depth than anyone else, and, if they lost, it was going to be because they beat themselves. They knew they were the team everyone was chasing and they reveled in that superiority.

Then the world caught up. It’s what the USWNT had worked for all these years; they saw what soccer did for them and how they helped change society’s perceptions of women, and they wanted that for the rest of the world.

But when it happened, both slowly and all at once, the Americans didn’t know what to do. They looked sluggish and overmatched at the Tokyo Olympics and again at last summer’s World Cup, their once-ferocious speed no longer a decisive advantage over teams that were more technically sound.

Being caught between generations didn’t help, and neither did adjusting to a new coach after eight years with Jill Ellis. But those were only contributing factors. The harsh truth was the Americans needed an overhaul — of tactics, of personnel and of attitude — if they were going to keep pace.

And Hayes is the person to do it.

While everyone on the USWNT knows who Hayes is, few actually know her. Catarina Macario and Mia Fishel, who is out of the running for the Olympic team after tearing her ACL in February, are the only Chelsea players currently in the U.S. player pool, though Crystal Dunn played for Hayes seven years ago. Hayes has allegiances to no one and no one thing.

Take Dunn as an example. Though she began her career at forward and is a midfielder for Gotham in the NWSL, she has been the USWNT’s left back for almost 10 years now. When Hayes announced her first roster as head coach Tuesday, however, Dunn was listed as a forward.

“I know what she can do at left back. I don’t need to see that at this camp,” Hayes said. “I want to see some different things from her.”

Of course Hayes has been assessing everyone in the player pool — she talked of watching games and clips of individual players late into the night in England over these past six months — and will eventually settle on a rotation and a tactical style. But there is something to be said for players having to prove themselves and not being able to take roster spots, starting jobs or even positions for granted. Hayes will make decisions based on what is best for the team in the moment, not because it’s what’s always been done.

That’s in the short term. Long term, the development system in the United States, or such as it can be when it’s largely pay-to-play at the youth level, is in desperate need of an overhaul. The NWSL needs to continue to elevate its level of play and profile, and the minor-league USL has an important role, too.

Stakeholders might balk at what Hayes recommends, but it’s going to be hard to argue with her given her résumé and her first-hand experience with a system that has proven its worth in Europe.

“I always said on sideline, ‘What got you here won’t get you there,’” Hayes said. “It’s an opportunity now to evolve.”

Similarities to Dawn Staley

As Hayes spoke, the parallels with another championship coach, one who speaks plainly and gets the most out of her players, was striking. No surprise, Hayes said. She and South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who last month won her second national championship in three years, are part of the same Nike coaches group and have gotten to be friends.

“Dawn and I are two of a kind,” Hayes said. “What an incredible coach she is.”

The same can be, and has been, said about Hayes. The USWNT needs a reboot, and she’s the perfect person to do it.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

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