The USWNT is sacrificing Olympics prep for Emma Hayes, and that’s a good tradeoff

SAN DIEGO, CA - OCTOBER 29: SAN DIEGO, CA - OCTOBER 29: USWNT starting eleven during an international friendly game between Colombia and USWNT at Snapdragon Stadium on October 29, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Michael Janosz/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Barring something unforeseen, the U.S. women’s national team will spend nine of the 11 months leading into the 2024 Olympics without a full-time head coach.

That, for now, is the superficial takeaway from a week of negotiations involving the U.S. Soccer Federation and Chelsea. And it isn’t ideal. U.S. Soccer announced Tuesday that Emma Hayes will be the USWNT’s next coach — but not until May. She will finish the 2023-24 season with her longtime London club. In the interim, Twila Kilgore will remain in charge of the USWNT.

But Kilgore won’t, presumably, be wasting time like she was in September and October.

She’ll surely be in consistent communication with Hayes over the coming months, because she has committed to join Hayes’ staff as an assistant.

“U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, Kilgore and her staff are engaged in developing a plan to work with Hayes to ensure a successful transition,” the federation said in its Tuesday news release.

The specifics of that plan remain in limbo 10 days after Hayes informed Chelsea she was leaving. In U.S. Soccer’s ideal world, she’d jointly prioritize her current and soon-to-be jobs between now and her official start date. But Chelsea, of course, would resist any such timeshare; club officials would prefer she dedicate 100% of her energy to the job she’s being paid 100% of her salary to do.

There are potential compromises between those two extremes. U.S. Soccer sources have floated the possibility that Hayes could join the USWNT during international breaks, the two-week windows when domestic leagues pause and FIFA requires clubs to release their players to national teams. There’s one that begins Nov. 27, during which the USWNT will play two friendlies (Dec. 2 and 5 versus China). There are two more in February and April.

Those breaks, though, are not complete shutdowns at a club like Chelsea. There are non-international players to manage, gameplans to construct and meetings to lead. So it remains unclear whether Hayes will even set foot in the States between now and May; and if so, in what capacity? The Athletic reported Tuesday that she “will not work with the U.S. in international windows,” though a person familiar with the discussions told Yahoo Sports that details of her involvement and presence remain to be determined.

What’s apparent, though, is that Hayes will not be on the USWNT sideline coaching matches. Kilgore will lead the team into the W Gold Cup, an inaugural regional tournament in February and March. And clocks will tick.

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes (left) meets with the fans after the final whistle in the Barclays Women's Super League match at Walton Hall Park, Liverpool. Picture date: Sunday November 12, 2023. (Photo by Tim Markland/PA Images via Getty Images)

All of this, in some sense, will be opportunity squandered. The USWNT needs a rebuild. The time to accelerate it is now. The December and April friendlies are chances to integrate youngsters; the Gold Cup is a chance to test them in competitive matches. Those matches will be less useful with Hayes watching from afar.

But they won’t be useless.

And they seem to be part of a necessary tradeoff.

U.S. Soccer’s apparent unwillingness to ride with an interim in 2019, during its last coaching search, likely constrained its candidate pool. If similar inflexibility this time around had excluded Hayes, and if the need to move to Chicago dissuaded Tony Gustavsson, the USWNT would have been left once again with an underwhelming hire. So, U.S. Soccer rightly chose to sacrifice.

The training camps being sacrificed, by the way, are prep for a tournament that’s declining in importance. The Olympics were once a critical platform on which women’s soccer could grow; now that the sport has built its own platforms, the Games are an increasingly overshadowed event that soccer governing bodies can’t really monetize. The International Olympic Committee controls them. Players still value them, because they represent childhood dreams and a stage for personal brand-building; but federations less so. Some in Europe might even argue that the Olympics will soon be third in the pecking order, behind World Cups and Euros.

And the Olympics themselves aren’t being sacrificed here. The USWNT’s odds of medaling hardly hinge on a few short camps and a handful of games this winter and spring. National team success overwhelming does not depend on the implementation of a coach’s system; it depends on vibes and personnel.

Besides, Hayes will have two summer camps and four friendlies to introduce basic ideas. Between now and then, she’ll begin formulating and communicating them. She’ll likely work with Crocker, her boss, and Kilgore, her soon-to-be assistant, to select rosters and lay foundations. Crocker, in a statement via U.S. Soccer, admitted it’s “a unique situation.” But in a way, it could even benefit Hayes — because, as one person close to the program suggested to Yahoo Sports this week, she’ll have extended time to essentially “audit the class.”

Her looming presence will also make players uncomfortable — in a good way. They’ll be focused and fierce under the watchful eye of their new coach’s deputy, knowing that places on rosters or in starting lineups are no longer guaranteed.

One big unknown is how often Hayes will start chatting with players, building relationships. Those are paramount, even more so than tactics. And for now, they’re on hold. “My full focus and attention is on what I do for Chelsea,” Hayes insisted last Friday. She does not work 24/7, though; there is time to pick up the phone.

And there is still time for this entire arrangement to evolve. Hayes wants to see out the season at Chelsea; she wants to make one last run at the Champions League; she wants to leave the club on good terms. But what if the season goes awry? What if Chelsea finds a successor by March? What if Hayes’ impending stateside move becomes so much of a distraction that she and the club decide to part ways sooner?

The situation seems fluid. The most important piece is what’s now concrete: Hayes, a potential visionary, will lead the USWNT into a murky future.