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As USWNT navigates transition, leadership opportunities await

Change is coming under Emma Hayes. What does that mean for the team’s leadership core?

Photo Copyright Chris Nicoll for USA TODAY Sports

Change is the operative word around the United States women’s national team as players and staff navigate an unprecedented period of extended transition. The six-month wait for Emma Hayes to arrive full-time as the team’s next coach will put a particular emphasis on player leadership.

With so many veterans missing from this week’s training camp — ahead of the final two games of a year the U.S. would rather forget — there are valid questions about who will fill that void over this extended period.

“As my role has evolved, and their role is evolving, we’re evolving together, which has been great,” U.S. interim coach Twila Kilgore said on Friday in response to a question singling out the leadership of Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett, and Rose Lavelle.

“But we’re looking for leaders from every direction. There’s space and room for players to step up and evolve in their roles and also in a leadership capacity, and you see it in lots of different ways in the environment, around the hotel, at trainings, and hopefully in games, that different people are starting to step up and that’s been wonderful. But yes, of course, all three of those players are very special human beings and players and are helping to drive the ship in some way or another.”

Horan co-captained the team at the World Cup alongside veteran forward Alex Morgan, who was left out of this December training camp. That tandem was put into place only weeks before the World Cup after an injury ruled out veteran defender Becky Sauebrunn from what would have been her fourth World Cup. Sauerbrunn is healthy again but was also left off this December roster.

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Kilgore has reiterated that players who were previously in camp are still in consideration for future selection as next summer’s Olympics approach, but the U.S. is also clearly on a pathway of change now that Hayes has some official influence (for now, in collaboration with Kilgore). Part of that player turnover will necessitate new leaders stepping up — even those who still might not be considered ‘veterans’ because of the connotation of making them sound ‘old’ when it feels like they aren’t.

Take Lavelle, for instance. It’s easy, still, to paint the dynamic midfielder as an up-and-coming player, but the reality is that she is now in her prime. She’s 28 and she has gone through two full World Cup cycles already, winning the Bronze Ball in 2019 as a breakout player. Lavelle is and has been a top player in the world when healthy.

Lavelle’s unfortunate history with injuries, which carried over into this year, makes it feel like she has been around the team for less time than she has, but her senior debut took place nearly seven years ago. Lavelle is a player who let’s her feet do the talking more than anything, but she is among the most experienced on the team right now. She’s also in fine form after tearing up the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs, where OL Reign fell short in another final. She has a perspective that younger U.S. players are still seeking out.

“Rose is in very good form,” Kilgore said. “For those of you that got to watch the NWSL final, I thought she was excellent. And she’s excellent today. So, we’re really excited about just her being healthy, being in the environment and her feeling good, and we expect big things from her.”

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Hayes spent a few days this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., getting to know players and staff for the first time since her appointment as impending head coach. Her meetings and interactions left players with the idea that there is now a “clear direction” for the team, a phrase that Kilgore echoed on Friday.

There is a lingering even if not entirely pressing question about leadership development in this transition phase, a period that will see Hayes only occasionally with the U.S. team. That plan is still evolving and being developed in real-time.

A head coach has a significant say in building a leadership group and selecting a captain. The players have significant roles in that, too, and in some environments that is as direct as a player vote. The fact that Kilgore will work in tandem with Hayes and then shift to being Hayes’ assistant allows for continuity in decision-making and information sharing from camps, where those leadership moments take place behind closed doors in training sessions and team meetings.

Horan remains the captain of the team and fits the profile. She is 29 and in her prime on the field, and she has increasingly shown a willingness to take on the burden that comes with speaking for the world’s most scrutinized women’s team. Wearing the armband at the 2023 World Cup, it was Horan who consistently stepped to the microphone during some of the United States’ low points, when she and her teammates knew some difficult questions were about to be asked. From the raw, postgame emotions in the tunnels in New Zealand and Australia, to the extensive questions in the days between games, Horan answered with grace, detail, and introspection.

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Hayes will have surely taken note of that, and now she gets to witness it up close at times. Hayes also knows Horan as one of the U.S.’ only players in Europe, where the new U.S. coach has said (before taking the job) that more Americans should seek to play to improve their games.

Like with many things, there’s a lingering feeling that Hayes’ full vision might not truly start to take effect in the public eye until after the Olympics. Even the most detailed collaboration with Kilgore won’t give Hayes that living, breathing experience of the environment. She’ll need to see that for herself, which won’t happen until late spring.

Until then, there are opportunities for players to step up for the team in this time of change.  

“There’s a great vibe in the group,” Kilgore said. “Lots of excitement around Emma being here. And also lots of excitement about being around each other, which is one of the things that Emma has emphasized in the group — continuing to stay close and get close, and what that actually looks like in an environment. So, things are headed in a really good direction.”

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