USWNT coach Emma Hayes arrives in America with work cut out ahead of Paris Olympics

NEW YORK — Emma Hayes peered out the window of a third-floor conference room overlooking Madison Avenue, out across the bustling city where her coaching career first bloomed, and memories came flooding.

They inundated her Wednesday upon arrival at Newark Liberty International Airport. They flowed again while Hayes navigated overcrowded streets, and strolled through Central Park, for the first time as U.S. women’s national team boss. “It's home to me,” she said.

She recalled coming to New York in her 20s, with $1,000 plus a backpack of clothes and a job at soccer camps on Long Island. She hopped from Port Washington to Manhattan, from the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge out to Westchester. She traveled throughout the region, even up to Rhode Island, as an anonymous Brit in search of a foothold in the sport she loved. She remembers “fighting to stay in the country on different visas.” She remembers worrying about rent. And she remembers dreaming, dreaming of climbing, perhaps all the way to the helm of the USWNT, which, at the time, stood atop women’s soccer.

Some 23 years later, she’s here — in part because the USWNT is no longer there.

It has fallen from the mountaintop, and Hayes has been hired, on a record-shattering contract, to lift it anew.

So there is precious little time for reminiscing. “We've got work to do,” Hayes said Thursday, 40 minutes into a roundtable discussion with reporters, when asked about immediate expectations. “The realities are … the rest of the world do not fear the USA in the way that they once did. … It's our job to grasp, quite quickly, what we need to do to get close again to [championship] levels.”

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes celebrates with the trophy after winning the English Women's Super League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford, in Manchester, England, Saturday, May 18, 2024. (Martin Rickett/PA via AP)
Former Chelsea manager Emma Hayes brings a history of winning to the USWNT. (Martin Rickett/PA via AP)

Hayes has been doing that job “in the background” for months, speaking with interim USWNT coach Twila Kilgore “on many long calls late at night” in London. “I feel like I've been able to quietly get to know the job without being in the job,” she said Thursday — “quietly” out of respect for Chelsea, which, until Sunday, remained her full-time employer.

But she has been watching NWSL games and clips of individual players. She has been feeding, to Kilgore, “changes” and “ideas that I've wanted to bring in.” When she speaks about the USWNT’s evolution over the past several months, she uses plural first-person phrasing, such as “what we’ve done so far.”

The job, though, will begin in earnest on Friday. Hayes will fly to Denver to meet with her staff, which she has hand-picked and carefully molded. At least five Chelsea assistants will follow her to America and join Kilgore. Bart Caubergh, previously Chelsea’s head of performance, will step into a new position that Hayes pushed to create in conversations with U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker: USWNT “program director.”

“What I've learned through years of doing this is that you've got two different teams,” Hayes explained. “You've got the team on the field, and you’ve got the team off the field. And it's extremely difficult for a head coach to manage both.”

Caubergh will be responsible for the latter. “He'll work with operations, performance, analysis, technical, even with medical, all of the departments, just to make sure we're coordinating,” Hayes said.

In many ways, they’ve already been coordinating. “All the May camp preparation is done,” Hayes said. “All the [training] sessions are planned. All the June schedule is planned out, in terms of our meetings, our meeting points. July is planned.”

What she hasn’t been able to do, though, is actually coach.

“Now,” she said Thursday with a clap of her hands, “it's about getting with the players.”

“It's a bit ass-upwards,” she later said with a smile. “I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time — I need to be with the team.”

She needs to do what she couldn’t from afar, on and off the pitch, when her first training camp begins Monday. She has scheduled one-on-one meetings with players, to get to know them as humans. She is also looking forward to seeing, and “feel[ing],” and “get[ting] a sense of” their skill sets and “tactical understanding.”

She’ll have to do all of that, though, amid a whirlwind. She’ll be living on the road until she eventually moves to Atlanta — where U.S. Soccer is building a national training center that isn’t close to completion. She’ll run her first camp next week in Colorado and Minnesota, and then? “Prepping for the Olympics,” she said. Where? “Probably a combination of places … to be determined.”

Those Olympics, of course, are two months away. Hayes will have to name her 18-woman roster after just two friendlies and a half-dozen training sessions. She’ll get another camp and two more friendlies in July. Then she’ll fly to France, and, as a reporter told her Thursday, “the fan expectation for this team has always been”

Hayes flashed a smile, and cut the reporter off. “No” she boomed, with every ounce of sarcasm she could muster. “It's not, is it!?”

The expectation, “of course,” is that the USWNT should win everything.

When asked whether that’s realistic in 2024, Hayes was equivocal. “I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning,” she said. “But … we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.”

She said she’ll use her first camp to analyze the state of the team, then ask herself: “What gap can I absolutely close between now and the Olympics?”

But she knows she’ll have to “be realistic about it.”

Because she’ll need time, time that she won’t really have prior to Paris. For now, she said when asked about her tactical approach, “I've gotta keep it simple. … Make sure we get the right messages across. And with time, we'll evolve.”

She’ll also need energy, and her supply, she admitted, had been sapped at Chelsea, the club she built “from nothing” into the five-time reigning English champion. It had “taken its toll,” she said Saturday. She reiterated Thursday: “Working at Chelsea took my whole life for the past 12 years.”

Leaving, she said, felt like “a huge boulder off of my shoulders. Twelve years, one place, carrying a lot of the women's game in England — like, it's liberating for me. I feel reenergized, excited.”

So she only needed one day off — Sunday, when she hosted a Star Wars-themed birthday party for her 6-year-old son, Harry.

Now she’s inspired, “because it's not often that dreams become a reality,” as she said Thursday.

“I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team.”