Emma Hayes making strong first impression at USWNT camp: ‘She’s a coach you want to play for’

COMMERCE CITY, Colorado — On the eve of her debut match coaching the United States women’s national team, Emma Hayes cracked a joke.

She was asked during Friday’s press conference what she’d learned about the team in her first few days physically on the job, and Hayes smiled and said, “well, the names.”

There’s a lot of work to do in order to get the USWNT back on top of the soccer world. This is a team that hasn’t won a major tournament since the 2019 World Cup. It hasn’t won an Olympic gold medal since 2012. But that doesn’t mean Hayes is going to change anything about who she is or her approach. As she playfully told a group of reporters last week in New York City: “Oh, you’re never going to get anyone with a personality like me.”

That’s been delightfully obvious from the start. Hayes has a strong presence and it’s felt. During Friday’s training session, she was clear in her direction, her voice carrying across the field at Dicks Sporting Goods Park where the team will face Korea Republic in the first of a friendly doubleheader on Saturday. They’ll face each other again on Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn.

“Great first touch, Sam,” Hayes hollered at Sam Staab, who earned her first senior national team call up this camp.

“Love that first touch!” she boomed again, this time directed at Trinity Rodman.

While U.S. players had some ideas about their new manager based on what they’d heard from friends who have played for her or what they’d observed watching from afar, now they’ve gotten to experience her in person.

“The on-field aspect is one big difference that you feel and you see,” captain Lindsey Horan said. “You finally get your coach out there on the field and the feeling you get [from that], the leadership you get, that’s exciting.”

“She definitely brings some lightheartedness into situations when necessary,” Alex Morgan said. “But she’s someone who is really excited and adamant about getting her point across with her coaching and teaching points. She’s demanding of respect, but I think that it’s mutual as well. She came into this environment and respects every player regardless of their journey to get to this team and how many caps each player has.”

“She’s a ball of energy,” added Sophia Smith. “But we all know that. She’s a fun coach to play for, she’s a coach you want to play for.”

And the learnings go both ways. After spending the past six months pulling double duty keeping tabs on the USWNT while managing Chelsea, Hayes is finally fully with the American side. And one of her first orders of business has been to get to know the players and build trust. She’s set up meetings with each player in 15-minute increments this week. She wants to establish basic facts and find out where they’re from, if they have siblings and if so, how many? And yes, this includes memorizing all of their names, too.

“I don’t do fast friends,” Hayes said. “I want us to build the right things in the right moments and it’s been a tremendous training week.”

The Paris Olympics are less than two months away at this point, and this is the final camp before Hayes names her 18-player roster. There’s a lot to do between now and then, but Hayes has been pleasantly surprised to see how far along the group is already when it comes to processing new information. She said she was impressed by the players’ “thirst for knowledge” and described them as being “incredibly studious” all week.

“I think there’s been a better tactical understanding than I anticipated,” Hayes said. “But for me, the most important thing is the ability to grasp information really, really quickly. [They’re] sponges. Unbelievable sponges. No matter what we’ve thrown them this week, they’ve taken it on, they’re absorbing it. 

“This team is desperate to improve and is focused on the performances and the processes to do that.”

As her tenure is only just beginning, there will inevitably be more new things implemented both on and off the pitch as time goes on. But there is one thing Hayes said will remain the same.

“I mean listen, we all know the main ingredients of the American DNA and that will not change under my stewardship,” Hayes said. 

Hayes told reporters last week that her definition of the USWNT culture is the “expectation to give it everything you’ve got. Managing pressure on the biggest stage and managing the badge on this jersey.”

“I like the spirit,” Hayes continued. “It fits with me. Trust me, I’m not going to be fighting against it. I’ll be with it. I’ll be with it. But my job is to be methodical about it, like we have to be processed towards getting to that point and hopefully I can put the team in the best place possible.”

That jives with Morgan, who is the most capped player in this camp with 223 national team appearances. Hayes will be the sixth USWNT head coach (including former interim coach Twila Kilgore) that Morgan has had. She’s one of the oldest players in the current player pool and will be 35 by the time the Olympics begin in July. So she understands better than most to “expect the unexpected” when it comes to new leadership.

“You know that change is coming and now change is here,” said Morgan, who had been rehabbing an ankle injury but is available for these matches. “Just having that openness and willingness to be able to learn at any stage of your career is extremely important and we’ve been learning a lot. 

“Obviously, it’s an accelerated pace knowing that the lead up to the Olympics is really close and usually a coach would have more than two months to prepare her team for a major tournament. But it’s been really great.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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