Friday, July 19, 2024

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US Women's National Team - The Land of the Free and Home of the Hayes

Emma Hayes doing a thumbs up

Now that Emma Hayes is leaving Chelsea and preparing to head Stateside upon the expiration of her contract, there's probably scope to wonder who this represents the biggest gamble for- herself, or the United States Soccer Federation, with time to peer into the wreckage of their most recent Women's World Cup campaign? 


Of course, the bar has always been set high given that in many ways the country has directed women's football to where it is now. So, perhaps Vlado Andonovski was just unlucky enough to be the one in charge when the purple patch ended and subsequently paid the price for a drop in massively high standards...

Considering Hayes’ record at Stamford Bridge and oft-quoted desire for a new challenge, in the lead up to the announcement that she had been chosen to lead them back to the sort of glory they'd been used to under the leadership of the also English and female Jill Ellis, maybe it really is the case that this is an opportunity she can't pass up in reviving what the US public probably unfairly sees as a sleeping giant!

So, the first question to be answered as she opens her in-tray must be how to wake them up following the sort of failure most national sides might kill for. A bronze medal in the 2020 Olympic tournament popularly seen as the start of the downward slide, as their previous 44- game unbeaten streak ended in their first group game with a 3-0 defeat by Sweden

They did at least emphatically beat New Zealand, co-hosts of the last World Cup, 6-1 to prove they hadn't lost any sense of the style to which those watching at home had become accustomed. Before signing off with a 0-0 draw against fellow Antipodean co-hosts Australia to finish second in their group and make the knockout stages.

Coming out the right side of a penalty shoot-out against Holland after a 2-2 draw in normal time, they would then crash out in the semi-finals with a narrow 1-0 defeat by Canada before facing the Aussies again for the bronze medal, squeaking past them 4-3 to take such a prize for the first time, not that it felt like one given their past successes. 

At least there was the comparative tonic of winning the 2022 CONCACAF Women's Championship for a ninth time (between the Olympics and the 2023 World Cup). Though there is a sense that that could have merely been fancy papering over more than a few cracks, before boarding the plane to Australia and New Zealand twelve months later...

U.S. Women's Team at the 2023 World Cup


With the expectation being that they were going there to win it for a third time, a three-peat in US parlance, what unfolded probably came as a shock to what most thought was a well-oiled system! The group stage started well enough with a 3-0 win against débutantes Vietnam, before a pair of draws- 1-1 with Holland and a nervy 0-0 with Portugal. Only poor finishing by their opponents arguably kept them in the competition, as they scraped to their lowest World Cup points total and just about made it out to face Sweden in the last sixteen.

But any thoughts that this was merely a blip were put to bed the moment Megan Rapinoe fluffed her lines in what was her final competitive game for her country. Sophia Smith and Kelley O'Hara's similar blowings of the gaff, or should that be “doing a Diana Ross”, merely confirmed that they were out and something was wrong as they managed to set two of their most unwanted national women's sporting records. An earliest exit from the tournament and the first time they wouldn't finish inside the top three, was not exactly what US Soccer wanted upon their return home- Andonovski's resignation on August 17 came in the aftermath.

To pin the blame on him and, by extension, his employers is perhaps a little unfair given what was going on concurrently in the background. The end of a wage discrimination case against them by twenty-eight players, as filed in March 2019, came two years later as Congress passed the GOALS (Give Our Athletes Level Salaries) Act. Introduced by Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro and Doris Matsui, it aimed at finally giving the women pay equality with their male counterparts- with the caveat that non-compliance by US Soccer could mean a funding cut for the co-hosting of the 2026 men's World Cup alongside Canada and Mexico...

Defender Crystal Dunn, speaking after the Sweden game, actually tried to put a positive spin on what many saw as the decline of what NPR called the once-dominant Americans!

"I think it says a lot about the growth of the game. I think so many people are looking for us to win games 5-0, and World Cups. We should be proud that those days aren't here. We, as members of the U.S. women's national team, have always fought for the growth of this game globally, and I think that is what you're seeing."

Andonovski himself seemed to imply that his brief was to focus on youth development post-Olympics, before exiting stage left...

"I was always focused on doing a good job, doing my job in the best possible manner to prepare this team for the challenges they have in front of them, and to prepare them to represent our country."

At least it seemed he kept up his end of the bargain in a sense, though naming fourteen new additions was possibly a step too far. Among them Smith, Alyssa Thompson, Savannah DeMelo and Trinity Rodman- who's already being talked up by ESPN as the player Hayes should be looking to rebuild the USA around.

Seeking to protect his young charges, he went on to offer some semblance of justification for what most back in the States would have deemed a massive mis- step.

"Even though it didn't end up the way we wanted, it's a huge experience for some of these young players. There's a group of players that will make a mark in the future."

Emma Hayes Takes Over U.S. Women's National ‘Soccer’ Team


Only now they'll have a new leader. Hayes was finally confirmed as the new USWNT gaffer on November 14 this year, to end speculation over what the new opportunity she'd been offered was, Chelsea kind enough to let her leave though sorry to see her go.

“This is a huge honor to be given the opportunity to coach the most incredible team in world football history. The feelings and connection I have for this team and for this country run deep. I’ve dreamed about coaching the USA for a long time so to get this opportunity is a dream come true.

I know there is work to do to achieve our goals of winning consistently at the highest levels. To get there, it will require dedication, devotion and collaboration from the players, staff and everyone at the U.S. Soccer Federation.”

Stall set out early, then- back to former glories with no behind the scenes distraction, if you please! And her answer to the question as posed by the US Soccer official website as to what it meant to her to be given the responsibility, probably had them purring...

“I understand how important the team is to the people and culture of the United States. This is not just about the soccer community and I fully understand the prestige and place that the team has in U.S. society. I've lived it. I remember being a young coach working my way up through the system in the U.S. and watching all those young girls aspire to play on the U.S. Women's National Team.

For me, the honor of building on that legacy is part of my motivation, no question. I have watched all the teams endlessly since I was a teenager. 

I have coached players at different points that have been across the program. I understand what it means to the U.S. people, and I will do everything possible to make sure that we compete on the top end, because in the world game there's no denying the gaps have closed worldwide so it's important we work hard, but we work together because we're not going to achieve that alone.


It's the entire ecosystem and landscape that has to cooperate to make sure that the U.S. Women's National Team is at the top of the podium. That's our objective.”

Beginning with the 2024 Olympics (in just six months), the rebuild, then, starts in earnest.

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