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Emma Hayes tries new tricks – and succeeds – in first game in charge of USWNT

‘Emma Hayes brought swagger back to the team’

Mallory Swanson dribbles the ball during the match against Korea Republic

After the U.S. women’s national team soundly defeated Korea Republic in a friendly on Saturday, June 1, former USWNT star and current ESPN commentator Julie Foudy remarked on the casual confidence she saw on the field. “Emma Hayes brought swagger back to the team,” Foudy said in the post-game recap. They didn’t seem overly self-assured and they didn’t play with arrogance, but, per Foudy, they showed the fans that “we are the United States, and we’re here to set the world order.” 

That world order – in which the United States comfortably sits atop the table of global women’s soccer – was pretty undeniable for much of the 21st century (especially in the 2010s). But the team has failed to perform to standards in the last few years, and notably suffered its earliest exit in national team history, in the round of 16, in the 2023 FIFA World Cup. So it’s no wonder that new head coach Emma Hayes, who joined the team just days after lifting Chelsea to the Women’s Super League championship, wants to shake things up. 

One of Hayes’s first orders of business on Saturday was setting her lineup. Notably, no starters from the 2019 World Cup final appeared in it (yes, you read that right – Lindsay Horan did not start that final match five years ago). A handful of players from that World Cup-winning squad still remain on the national team. Some of them, like Tierna Davidson, played a second-string role then but have grown into starting positions now. And other older members of the 2019 squad such as Crystal Dunn may now find themselves in substituting roles.

For the last few years, the USWNT, under former head coach Vlatko Andonovski, suffered a great deal of criticism for holding onto USWNT veterans perhaps past their prime and not always making space for the youth to grow. Interim head coach Twila Kilgore moved the pieces around over the last few months to open up new avenues for younger and less experienced players. Hayes already appears poised to not only continue in that style but perhaps also to  reshuffle the pieces even more (Crystal Dunn played forward!) 

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Hayes, who carries a 65% win percentage throughout her 23-year coaching career, has long been known for her creative attacking strategies. Per The Guardian, during her time with Chelsea, “Hayes became known for a willingness to alter her team’s approach to exploit the opposition’s biggest weakness.” So, while it would be a stretch to accredit the United States’s four goals on Saturday to the strategies of a coach who only joined the team weeks ago, it’s realistic to say that Hayes’s decisions helped create these opportunities. 

Mallory Swanson’s two goals in the 34th and 74th minutes – her first national team goals since suffering a knee injury over a year ago – re-asserted the striker’s dominance at the top of the field. But a brace from defender Tierna Davidson, who scored in the 38th and 48th minutes, was unlikely to be on anyone’s bingo card. If Hayes’s tactical shifts as an attacking-heavy coach are encouraging even defenders to get on the board, it’s exciting to imagine the daring opportunities that may be created in the Hayes era.  

To create more opportunities, Hayes also opened up the floodgates of substitutes. Subbing in a friendly is to be expected, and especially as Hayes prepares to set her Olympic roster. It’s also not so consequential when the team is up by four goals. But opening up opportunities for subs to make a difference meant players like Jenna Nighswonger, who is still collecting caps in the single digits, and Sam Staab, who earned her first-ever cap on Saturday, could see action and prove themselves. 

In the leadup to the Olympics, Hayes is clearly playing around with different formations and combinations and appears to be giving her best effort towards evaluating everyone on the roster, not just the starting squad. It’s early yet, but if Tuesday’s re-match against Korea Republic includes just as much success, dynamism, and, per Foudy, swagger, Hayes’s quest to winnow down her Olympic roster will become a little bit harder. 

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