Emma Hayes at USWNT: Who could thrive, and the big questions to answer

The United States women’s national team is embarking on a new era with the appointment of its next permanent head coach, Emma Hayes.

The 47-year-old FA WSL Hall of Famer has led Chelsea for the past 11 seasons, winning an incredible six league titles, including the domestic treble in 2020/21, becoming an English coaching legend in the process.

Her appointment completes the transition away from the Vlatko Andonovski era, which ended in massive disappointment as the No. 1-ranked USWNT flopped out of the 2023 Women’s World Cup in the Round of 16, their worst ever result at any FIFA tournament.

With Hayes in charge, a new dawn approaches. The London-born boss is considered one of the top coaches around the world, and with the dip in the USWNT’s global status in recent years, it wasn’t a guarantee that U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker could secure an upper-echelon candidate. Yet here they sit with a strong hire to lead them into the 2024 Olympics and through to the 2027 Women’s World Cup.

Hayes inherits a truly star-studded squad loaded with world-class talent, but one reeling from last summer’s disappointment. With plenty to work with but also plenty of questions to answer, The Sporting News brings you a look at who could blossom under new leadership, while also detailing the biggest hurdles for Hayes to overcome as she takes charge of the world’s most esteemed women’s football program reeling from recent setbacks.

MORE: Who is Emma Hayes? More on her coaching resume, trophies won

One of Emma Hayes’ biggest strengths is her tactical flexibility as a head coach. Hayes has been known to adapt her formation to the players at hand, which is a very important skill at international level where players can’t be bought or sold as they can with regularity at club level.

Hayes reached the Champions League final in the magical 2020/21 Chelsea season sporting a modern 4-3-3 formation, before switching to a back-three the very next year and repeating as FA WSL title winners.

Hayes favors wide attacking play, with both wingers and overlapping full-backs providing significant contributions both on the cross and the dribble. This goes as far as having the central midfielders often make runs in between the striker and winger, allowing the forwards to have the flexibility to go either extremely wide in support or pinch to provide threat — a decision which the midfielders then play off.

Whether Hayes deploys one or two strikers, it usually ends up with a lone forward in front of goal while the other enjoys freedom to drift wide.

Buildup under Hayes can sometimes bypass the midfield, with central defenders instructed to play long balls out wide to the wingers to cause confusion amongst the opposition shape, which then struggles to reacquire opposing players after the ball comes back down in a completely different place. Then, the winger can either attack a scrambling opposition or settle possession, playing back to a holding midfielder or springing a midfield run if the initial move succeeds at causing enough chaos.

Hayes prefers two No. 8s in midfield to shield the back line and support a lone No. 10. This allows for a flexible approach to various opponent setups, including a 5-3-2 to press a direct opponent, or a 4-3-3 to provide extra width.

With the importance Emma Hayes places on wingers in the attack, or strikers who can drift out wide, a few players in the USWNT player pool will particularly enjoy her appointment.

With Hayes preferring wide playmaking in a number of facets, one player who could enjoy a return to prominence under the new head coach is Mallory Swanson.

Still shelved with her patellar tendon injury suffered last March, Swanson should theoretically return before the Olympics, likely around the same time Hayes takes over the team. She was in the form of her life at the time of her injury, threatening to smash her way into the upper echelon of the world’s best forwards.

That exceptional form could continue under Hayes as she becomes an important player in this system, allowed to push wide and send in crosses or cut into the middle on the dribble, and given support both on the switch and on the overlap. Look for Swanson to be a key factor for Hayes once she returns to the field.

Still just 21 years old, Trinity Rodman was thrust into a big role at the 2023 Women’s World Cup thanks to Swanson’s injury. Rodman struggled along with the entire USWNT attack, but she remains a player with enormous promise.

Like Swanson, Rodman is a wide player who could take the next step under Hayes, playing a similar position to that which Sam Kerr used to be at Chelsea alongside Pernille Harder in their best years under Hayes — a role that Lauren James now has with Kerr playing more central.

In the 2021/22 UEFA Women’s Champions League, Kerr was a cross machine, in the 94th percentile amongst forwards in the competition for her volume in that regard. Yet she also created chances on the dribble (82nd percentile in shot-creating actions via take-ons), and received the ball in dangerous areas (11.1 progressive passes received per 90 minutes, 98th percentile amongst forwards). Those are all things Rodman can do well, and she could play a similar role for the U.S. moving forward.

While Swanson and Rodman are obvious choices as wide playmakers who will have plenty of opportunities to both create and finish chances under Hayes, midfielder Lindsey Horan could also greatly benefit for a different reason.

Horan excels at both delivering cutting-edge deliveries to forwards and making late runs into the penalty area. Both these skills will translate nicely into Hayes’ tactical approach.

The 29-year-old, already one of the most important players in the USWNT player pool, will be a perfect fit for the way Hayes likes to attack out wide. Horan will often be the third player in the attacking triangle Hayes likes to get involved up front, with the link-up between winger, striker, and No. 8 vital as they form a triangle out wide in the attacking third.

Hayes loves to have the wingers cause initial havoc, and then have the option to take defenders on themselves, combine with a striker, or play the ball centrally to a midfielder in support. Additionally, Horan’s ability to crop up in front of goal will be huge as Hayes loves to have wingers send crosses into the penalty area for aerially proficient players such as Horan.

While there are certainly those amongst the U.S. squad who could find life enjoyable under the new boss, there are still plenty of holes to plug and problems to solve as the United States moves into new, uncharted territory. The USWNT hasn’t been in this position — firing its coach after disappointing at the World Cup — in a long time, if ever.

Here are some major problems that Hayes must find solutions to in her first few months on the job, with the 2024 Olympics right around the corner once she takes charge.

Regardless of who was hired to follow Andonovski, the biggest and most pressing problem needing a solution soon is the cavernous gap in talent for the defensive midfield position following the retirement of Julie Ertz.

Andi Sullivan has not been up to standards in that position, a large reason for the early Women’s World Cup exit last summer, while Emily Sonnett’s capabilities in that role are largely untested.

Hayes will have to get familiar with the USWNT player pool quickly, and before answering any other questions at any other position, she will have to have a plan for filling this extremely important part of the pitch.

One player at a crossroads with the USWNT is Sophia Smith. Thought to be one of the players most ready to break out on a global level at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, Smith fell well short of expectations Down Under. She was often on an island under Andonovski and was unable to create chances for herself up front.

Smith was a regular-season champion with Portland Thorns in 2021 and followed that up by winning player of the match in the 2022 NWSL Championship game, winning the 2022 NWSL MVP to boot. Yet she suffered a bit of a regression in 2023, scoring 11 goals across 17 matches while being consistently moved around between striker and winger for club and country.

Still just 23 years old, Smith will need to be put in better positions to succeed if the U.S. women can truly unlock her world-class potential. 

With the retirement of Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz, Alex Morgan now essentially stands alone as the last true superstar from her generation of players. The USWNT squad is getting younger by the minute, and the roles of those in their 30s are becoming less and less defined.

The veteran player in the most flux is Morgan, who has clearly declined in her ability to score goals but is attempting to adapt her role to fit what the team needs best. Unfortunately, Andonovski was unable to figure out what Morgan still does well and utilize that to his advantage. It was something that should have been figured out well before the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and yet it felt as if Morgan’s role changed not just from game to game, but even half to half, with Andonovski seemingly throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck — and nothing did.

The U.S. doesn’t have a true central striker amongst the younger generation, maybe outside of Sophia Smith, which makes Morgan’s presence important. Thus, it feels like the 34-year-old still has something left to give before calling time on her career, but Hayes must figure out how the U.S. legend can be most effective on the field.

How will Emma Hayes fit with USWNT? New USA coach’s tactics, players who could thrive, and the big questions

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