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Emma Hayes’ first USWNT roster signals change

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The United States women’s national team’s Emma Hayes era has begun — sort of.

U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker said on Monday that he is “hopeful” but unsure if Hayes will meet players and coaches in the training camp that begins next week in Florida, but he was clear that he feels

“From my perspective, what was important is that we got the best candidate for the long term, rather than the wrong candidate for the short term,” Crocker said.

The road ahead was always going to be filled with change. Hayes’ first roster — constructed in collaboration with interim head coach Twila Kilgore — is confirmation that the process is clearly underway.

Eleven of the 26 players selected for camp have single-digit caps, including first-time call-ups Korbin Albert and Jenna Nighswonger. Kilgore made it clear on multiple occasions on Monday that veterans left off the roster remain in the mix for the Olympics, but like with former head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s roster makeover of early 2022, there is an implicit message that those incumbent spots are in jeopardy. Among those absent from the upcoming camp are forward Alex Morgan, defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Crystal Dunn, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Five other players from the World Cup roster have also been left home.

Kilgore said she spoke with every player who was in the previous camp about why they have not been called up this time, and that there is “equal opportunity moving forward” toward the Olympics. She declined to share specifics of those conversations.

“I’m very confident that both Emma and I know what the players that are not called into camp are capable of doing and what their value is, and we simply wanted to use this roster to get more players in to look at them and get some evaluations in a quicker period of time, whether that’s in the environment, in training, or in games,” Kilgore said.

She spoke about new players having the opportunity to show they will be “brave” and “creative” — two words one can imagine rolling off the tongue of Hayes, who might not even be able to formally speak about U.S. players for some time (she is yet to have a U.S. Soccer press conference because she remains contracted to Chelsea).

Neither Crocker nor Kilgore would go into great detail on the finer details of the long-term plan on Monday. Those answers will take time to glean. Even those two simple words, however, could be viewed as the path forward expected from Hayes. Bold. Creative.

Hayes has been critical of the U.S. system and players in her punditry work on TV and online for major international tournaments. The problems that Hayes identified (and many other observers have pointed out for some time) extend beyond how the senior national team is playing. The root of the issue is the U.S. ecosystem that produces these players, and the shortcomings of a fractured pay-to-play model that rarely rewards individual creativity, thus making talented a player like midfielder Rose Lavelle feel more like a “unicorn” (a word used last week) rather than a model for other creative American playmakers.

Hayes must be involved in the processes below the senior team. As the senior team coach, she will certainly have her hands on youth national teams, but even those are still at the very bottom of the funnel of the player pathway.

“Her understanding of [player pathways] clearly is pretty outstanding, and she’s got some strong views about the complexities and some possible solutions of how we move forward,” Crocker said. “So, it would be silly not to involve her in those processes.”

Asked for more detail in a follow-up, Crocker cited the United States “perceived” inability to break down a low block, and Chelsea’s high-scoring tendencies under Hayes.

Struggles against the low block are not new (nor are low blocks going away; they are effective), and they point to the U.S.’ collective inability to improvise. The U.S. flopped out of the 2016 Olympics because of a low block, and it was not set up by some mid-level team looking to slay a giant; old foe Sweden (the new world No. 1) stymied the Americans.

A search for answers from that failure is partly what fast-tracked the inclusion of Lavelle into the senior team. A few years later, she won the Bronze Ball at the 209 World Cup.

This time around, the U.S. needs more than a unicorn to fix its problems. If anything, Hayes is that mythical figure, the rare coach who can be an outsider with insider knowledge of the program, an empathetic friend who will also ruthlessly tear apart the roster, and a bold personality who is also willing to adapt.

What Hayes needs to do over the next four years is develop and construct a team that can win in umpteen ways. The U.S. team that crashed out of the 2023 World Cup looked incapable of adapting to the tactical nuances of its opponents.

Maybe Jaedyn Shaw, who turned 19 on Monday, can help with that. Maybe Albert or Nighswonger can be fixtures in the long run. And maybe some of the 2023 World Cup players not called into camp will still be part of the picture. There’s still a long road to 2027. Now, after a few months spent in limbo, the U.S. women are moving forward.

Monday’s roster announcement marked a clear shift from the status quo to an exploration period, a line separating what was before and what will be a new era. An awkward six months await everyone involved, but necessary changes are often hard. U.S. Soccer is betting on Hayes being worth it.

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