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Will Emma Hayes redeem the USWNT at the Olympics after last year’s World Cup embarrassment?

Fans hold up placard in support of new United States women's national team head coach Emma Hayes before the team faces South Korea in in an international friendly soccer game,  Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo.
Fans hold up placard in support of new United States women's national team head coach Emma Hayes before the team faces South Korea in in an international friendly soccer game, Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. | David Zalubowski

The U.S. women’s national soccer team’s is off to a strong start under new coach Emma Hayes. It beat the Korea Republic 4-0 and 3-0 over the past week in Hayes’ first two games at the helm.

For the two games, Hayes called 23 players and four additional training players into her first training camp, the only camp she’ll get before having to select the 18 players who will represent the U.S. in Paris this summer. There were several players who weren’t called up this camp but could also be under consideration.

On Friday, Hayes told reporters she wasn’t thinking about the Olympic roster because she was focused on the two games against South Korea. But now, the time has come for Hayes to decide who she’ll bring with her to Paris.

The U.S. has two matches left before the Olympics, but Hayes will have already finalized the roster by the next game on July 13. Hayes has less time than any other U.S. women’s coach has had to assemble an Olympic or World Cup roster.

Those two matches will be a dress rehearsal for the Olympics, which starts July 25 against Zambia.

The recent U.S. Olympic and World Cup history

Hayes has the chance to do something her predecessor Vlatko Andonovski couldn’t: win a major tournament and return the U.S. to its world-dominating ways.

The U.S. famously repeated as World Cup champions in 2015 and 2019 under Jill Ellis.

But after Ellis stepped down, Andonovski failed to deliver the same results. The U.S. finished third at the Olympics in 2021 and was eliminated in the Round of 16 in last summer’s World Cup — its earliest exit ever. However, Andonovski’s bronze medal at the Olympics was a better result than Ellis’ quarterfinal finish in 2016.

In the seven Olympics in which women’s soccer has been played, the U.S. has taken home the gold medal four times and the silver and bronze once. But it’s been 12 years since the last time the U.S. won gold in 2012.

Two consecutive World Cup titles were more than acceptable as a consolation prize, but last year’s embarrassing World Cup exit makes a successful Olympics paramount.

“We haven’t had the success that we’ve wanted in major tournaments over the last five years or so, so it’s getting down to the ways that we’re proud of,” Alex Morgan said Friday. “Just doing the things that we need to do. But before we get ahead too much and try to get in that gold medal match to just work on the process of each day learning from Emma, implementing things, executing things on the field that she’s been coaching and just taking it day by day.”

What stood out from Emma Hayes’ first two USWNT games?

This month’s training camp was all about learning, Hayes emphasized, and the players have been “unbelievable sponges.”

“They’re absorbing it,” she said Friday. “This team is desperate to improve and is focused on the performances and the processes to do that.”

The training has appeared to already improve the team’s passing significantly. In the 2023 World Cup, the team averaged a 73.8% in passing accuracy, according to USA Today. In both games against South Korea, the team finished with over 89% passing accuracy, which has only happened twice in the last two games, per OptaJack.

“We want to pay attention to little details. That’s kind of the biggest thing right now is tactics are tactics, but if we don’t take care of the little details or passes, it’s gonna make it a long game,” Sophia Smith said after Saturday’s game.

Hayes has found ways to maximize her team’s offensive production, including from some unexpected sources.

  • Defender Tierna Davidson scored two goals Saturday, tripling her national team goal total.

  • Mallory Swanson scored her first two goals since her injury in April 2023.

  • Crystal Dunn played her first game as a forward since 2017 and scored her first goal since 2018 on Tuesday.

  • 16-year-old Lily Yohannes scored just 10 minutes into her national team debut Tuesday, becoming the third-youngest to ever score for the U.S. women’s national team.

Who will make the USWNT 2024 Paris Olympics roster?

While camp was a learning opportunity for the players, it was also a learning opportunity for Hayes, who is still getting to know her players — especially their names, she joked Friday.

Her first two lineups reflect her interest in getting a sense of everyone. For Tuesday’s game, she replaced nine of the 11 starters from Saturday’s match.

The lineup changes don’t help those attempting to predict the roster for the Olympics. But some consistency can be found in the four rosters that have been assembled since Hayes’ hiring was announced last November.

The following 14 players have been on all four rosters:

  • Jane Campbell.

  • Casey Murphy.

  • Tierna Davidson.

  • Emily Fox.

  • Naomi Girma.

  • Casey Krueger.

  • Korbin Albert.

  • Sam Coffey.

  • Lindsey Horan.

  • Jenna Nighswonger.

  • Emily Sonnett.

  • Trinity Rodman.

  • Jaedyn Shaw.

  • Sophia Smith.

Morgan, Dunn, Rose Lavelle, Abby Dahlkemper, Lynn Williams and Olivia Moultrie were each on three of the rosters. On this latest roster, Williams and Dahlkemper were left off and Moultrie was included as a training player.

The average age of those 14 players before the start of the Olympics would be 25.5. Morgan, who will turn 35 a couple of weeks before the tournament, could provide important experience and knowledge to a young team. Only three of those 14 players have played in an Olympics. Morgan would be the fourth Olympian and the only gold medalist on the team.

Morgan was kept out of Saturday’s game but started on Tuesday. Hayes told reporters that it was out of precaution and there was no need to read into the decision.

“We felt yesterday — this is an important issue to raise — maybe stretching a little bit of pelvic area, and us women who have had children have to focus on, you know, keeping their pelvic floor agile, and I told her yesterday we’re going to take any risks today because I want her to play Tuesday,” Hayes said Saturday in her postgame press conference.

Hayes invited three goalkeepers to the this camp — Jane Campbell, Casey Murphy and Aubrey Kingsbury. Both Campbell and Murphy started for Hayes this week and posted clean sheets.

The U.S. has never brought more than two goalkeepers to the Olympics, and one of those spots belongs to Alyssa Naeher, who wasn’t invited to this camp because she’s recovering from an injury. Hayes made that point clear.

“I know exactly who Alyssa Naeher is and (she’s) been an established world-class goalkeeper for a number of years‚” Hayes said following Tuesday’s win. “If she wasn’t injured, she for sure would be in this camp.”

One wild card player’s chances may have just improved. Yohannes, who has been included on the last two rosters, may have earned a trip to Paris after Tuesday’s performance. But whether she represents the U.S. in the Olympics this summer could ultimately come down to her own decision.

Born in Virginia, Yohannes moved to the Netherlands at age 10 and is reportedly applying for citizenship there. She has interest from the Netherlands to play for them once she is eligible, according to The Athletic.

Despite already earning a cap for the U.S., she still could suit up for the Dutch because her appearance only came in a friendly. But playing for the U.S. in Paris this summer would end any possibilities of her playing for the Oranje and would instead lock her in red, white and blue for the rest of her international career.

Regardless of Yohannes’ decision, Hayes still has a big decision on her hands. She believes she’s up to the challenge.

“There is no denying there is an unbelievable talent pool in this country, and selecting a group of players to represent this country is, of course, going to be a difficult one because every single player, not just involved in this camp but players on the outside of that, are so desperate to represent USA in the Olympics,” she said Friday. “Of course it’s challenging but not one that I’m not used to doing.”