U.S. Soccer took a gamble waiting for Emma Hayes, leaving USWNT’s style of play in limbo

U.S. Soccer took a gamble waiting for Emma Hayes, leaving USWNT’s style of play in limbo
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In November, U.S. Soccer gambled that it was worth sacrificing a year of continuous preparation under a permanent manager to hire Emma Hayes. For eight months following the 2023 World Cup, interim management has overseen the U.S. women’s national team. To her credit, Twila Kilgore’s tenure as placeholder helped turn over the player pool and saw her team win a pair of tune-up competitions this spring.

Still, it’s been a lost year for the program at a time when it was in sore need of a clear new vision. Hayes’ first games as USWNT manager in June are still two months away, bringing the post-World Cup interlude to 10 months — and a full seven months from her appointment in November.

With the CONCACAF W Gold Cup and SheBelieves Cup in the rearview, it’s time to take stock. Is the program any better prepared to contend at the Paris Olympics than it was when Sweden knocked it out of the World Cup?

The 2023 World Cup cycle (and, by association, the Vlatko Andonovski era) stands out as the low point for the USWNT on the field.

The belated 2020 Olympics was a warning sign, as an aging core entered with varying levels of fitness amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team played every game in empty stadia, a far cry from the raucous support it so often enjoys in major tournaments, and the team was ultimately eliminated by Canada in the semifinal.

Rather than heeding lessons from that tournament, Andonovski largely ran it back for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The team’s style of play often looked languid as it failed to breach the final third. Multiple players failed to see the field for a single minute as the U.S. advanced from its group thanks in part to a friendly goalpost against Portugal. The relief was short-lived as the U.S. fell to another longtime rival, Sweden, in a round of 16 penalty shootout.

Advanced metrics show that the U.S. did do some good things in its four games at the tournament. No team allowed fewer shots per 90 than the squad’s 4.6, and its average xG per 90 advantage of 2.14-0.32 certainly screams “contender” in isolation. However, the issues with build-up and chance creation were clear.

The team progressed up the field quickly enough, ranking 11th in the tournament field with a direct speed of 1.71 meters advanced upfield per second of possession.

Speed isn’t everything. Tournaments are notorious for eliciting small sample size judgments, and the trendline is far from definitive. Nevertheless, none of the 10 teams that ranked higher in direct speed advanced any further in the tournament than the round of 16.

Progressing the ball upfield with pace is a helpful tool in transition, but the USWNT seemed devoid of ideas once it met the opposing defense in the final third. All four teams that had a more rapid direct speed also bowed out in the round of 16. Unsurprisingly, all five teams that averaged fewer goals per 90 than the U.S. also failed to reach the quarterfinal or further.

Playing direct and sharp final third decision-making shouldn’t be treated as a mutually exclusive proposition, mind you. Given the talent at the USWNT’s disposal, there’s the potential to create a near unstoppable balance in attack. With the benefit of hindsight, the federation wanted to ensure the team was better equipped to make smart decisions to score with dependability.

​​“There was definitely a sense that we need to be better with the ball and have more solutions,” U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker said in September. The federation polled players during the coaching search and much of the focus from the tactical feedback involved building the attack, playing through the midfield and having “creative solutions in tight spaces, having the players and the tactics to beat the low block.”

After spending an entire cycle moving the ball despite its midfield — the Prayer Circle Formation, as Kim McCauley so brilliantly branded it — they wanted to make use of their engine room.

Enter Hayes, a tactical chameleon who’s well-versed in the art of breaking down low blocks at the helm of her Chelsea juggernaut. She plans for the opponent rather than coaching from dogmatic principles. Each game’s instructions are curated with one aim in mind: winning, above all else.

You can see the appeal at surface level, hiring a coach who habitually works to overcome the type of cynical tactics that sunk the team last summer. The catch: the team would have to wait while Hayes admitted her “full focus and attention is on what I do for Chelsea” until that season’s end.

If there’s a highlight performance over the last 10 months, it came in the Gold Cup quarterfinal against Colombia. In the preceding group stage, the USWNT was frustrated by opponents like Argentina and Mexico sitting in a low block as Kilgore maintained a possession-oriented structure perhaps too closely akin to Andonovski’s. Patterns of ball circulation slowed the team’s build-up, giving all too much time for defensive-minded opponents to get into their ideal placements.

Colombia was a World Cup quarterfinalist last summer, blessed with one of the world’s great young attackers, Linda Caicedo, and a team that suited her skillset on the break. Kilgore strove to exploit those tendencies by letting her team play direct. It achieved two things: greater attacking intensity going forward, and fewer turnovers in the defensive half that would cater to Colombia’s strengths. A 3-0 win was a statement that the USWNT was back with a point to prove.


Direct again: How USWNT’s new old approach lends flexibility going forward

Taking a similar scoring initiative was impossible in a rain-soaked semifinal slog against Canada, and the team opted for a more controlled style of play in the final against Brazil, winning 1-0. It got results, ensuring the team won the inaugural Gold Cup.

Still, the team wasn’t showcasing the type of consistent goalscoring necessary to be better prepared for the Olympics than it was in the World Cup. Fortunately, SheBelieves was right around the corner, providing another pair of games against high-level opponents to showcase Crocker’s desired “creative solutions in tight spaces.”

Japan had other ideas. Kiko Seike became the first player to score against the USWNT in a game’s opening minute since 2003, putting the hosts at an early 1-0 deficit. With some savvy high-pressing the U.S. equalized 20 minutes later before a 77th-minute penalty kick sealed a 2-1 win for the U.S. It was a professional result, but not a showcase of the principles U.S. Soccer strove to install.

Up next came Canada, which saw Kilgore drop one of her usual four attacking players for a second pivot at the base of midfield. Intentional or otherwise, this saw the team revert to their Prayer Circle tendencies.

“Our attack is not built around one individual player and that is by design,” Kilgore said ahead of the final. “It’s important that we have the ability to score goals from a variety of different ways. And even though we have these predictable moments for us that we’re looking for, it’s important that different people are filling different roles and able to recognize when they’re the one that needs to maybe make an early run or get out ahead of the opponent for a cross.”

Just over five minutes into the final against Canada, the USWNT seemed to look through its variety of chance-creation methods after a Lindsey Horan tackle sprung Sophia Smith on the counter.

Huh, that’s a let-off for Canada. Time to set up for another wave of attack.

Oh no, not the Prayer Circle.

No, no, no , no, no, no —

Over half an hour later, Canada opened the scoring after a miscommunication between goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and her defense. Once again, the United States was forced to react to the game after allowing the opponent to establish its terms.

Ultimately, a fresh batch of Naeher shootout heroics saw the USWNT become SheBelieves champions again. The two conceded goals could be chalked up to individual errors.

Then again, the same could be said for the USWNT’s showing last summer: a team largely in control of games, but not showing enough bite to convert ball retention into goals — all while being prone to gaffes.

Is this team really better equipped to contend at these Olympics than it was last year?

If we’re looking for evidence of progress since August, we’ll need to start by looking at individual players. Alex Morgan struggled in the World Cup, but her gritty line-leading work was vital to the proactive success against Colombia. Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario returned from injuries that limited their 2023 involvement and largely kept pace with the game around them.

The aftermath of the World Cup was always bound to see some program mainstays give way to the next generation. Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe both had send-off games, while captain Becky Sauerbrunn has faded from involvement. Horan has stepped up as a team leader, while Naomi Girma is already similarly impactful despite being just 23.

Young players benefited from Kilgore’s call-ups. Jenna Nighswonger has been a breath of fresh air at left back, providing sorely needed width in the build-up in a role that was previously instructed to tuck into midfield under Andonovski. Jaedyn Shaw is the latest attacking revelation, showing precocious decision-making in transition while being a capable first-time finisher. Sam Coffey seems poised to be the team’s defensive midfielder of the future, and Korbin Albert’s all-around game makes her seem like a possible successor to Horan in midfield (pending the off-field issues that could impact her locker room standing).

Having promising young players step up is essential to overcoming a bad four-year spell. But how many players like Nighswonger, Shaw and Coffey will need to reassert their readiness once Hayes comes in? It’s remained an open question just how closely Hayes is watching and assessing her upcoming pool of players. If that answer is less than “with a keen eye,” they’ll need to ace their second first impression to stay ahead of more veteran alternatives.

Ultimately, no matter who makes the 18-player Olympic roster, we don’t know how they’ll look to play in Paris. The questions that hung over the program still don’t have definitive answers.


USWNT Olympic roster prediction after the SheBelieves Cup

In appointing a coach who couldn’t start her job for over half a year, the USSF gambled that her quality is so much more irresistible than any alternatives that it was worth spending half a year in purgatory.

Two of the summer’s friendlies come against South Korea and Mexico, both of which won’t partake in the Olympics, but will no doubt want to claim a win over one of the world’s most celebrated teams of any sport. They’ll provide tests at a time when Hayes will still be studying for answers.

Tuesday also saw the final member of the USWNT’s Olympic group qualify. Zambia joined the U.S., Germany and Australia in Group B. Australia was a semifinalist last summer. Germany has its point to prove after failing to advance from its group, while Zambia is riding high on the back of its first World Cup appearance. It won’t be a given that the U.S. will advance to the knockouts, to say nothing of its medal-winning ambitions.

It will be easy to spin a poor showing in Paris as a short-term sacrifice with a focus on the 2027 World Cup, which could potentially be played on home soil. That said, this isn’t a program that has ever treated any major tournament as a developmental tool. When the United States competes in a women’s soccer tournament, it’s there to win. That’s the benchmark that has been established for generations of players and one that the fans hold to account.

This summer, the players’ every performance will be scrutinized, and their future selections will hang in the balance more than Hayes’ job will (or should). If the program’s decision to spend so many months under interim leadership backfires, the blame will fall on them — and unfairly so.

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