Emma Hayes’s vision for USWNT is crystal clear: What we learned from her first game in charge

Details. Trust. Process. A tolerant, respectful, inclusive environment. Nine days into Emma Hayes’s tenure as USWNT head coach, and five days into her first camp with the players, the themes are once again crystal clear and articulated at every turn as Hayes lists her early priorities — and builds a narrative for players and fans to follow to the Olympics.

“We all know the main ingredients of the American DNA,” she said on Friday. “That will not change under my stewardship.” One day later, the promise felt upheld, with Mallory Swanson and Tierna Davidson each providing braces in the 4-0 win over South Korea. There were no radical, deeply surprising changes to the team’s tactics or starting XI. As Hayes stressed on Friday, she was focused on the details rather than “major structural changes.”

One of the main things we learned about Emma Hayes in Colorado is that she presented a considerable amount of new information to the players over only a few days, promising tired brains across the board for a team that she said was “desperate to improve.”

As she said on Friday, the team was “sponges, unbelievable sponges, no matter what we’ve thrown at them this week.”

Center back Tierna Davidson, who scored both her goals via her head from corner kicks at the back post, said on Friday that the team was focusing on “the smallest things at training.” After the match, she upgraded her assessment to an information overload. Her new head coach wasn’t surprised that she had been in the right place to score her two goals from set pieces, because it had been something the team worked on this past week.

Davidson celebrating (C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)

“Tierna is a really reflective character, thoughtful, intelligent,” Hayes said. “She waits until she comments on anything in the environment. She listened all week; we rehearsed multiple things, not just set pieces. And her attention to detail, her ability to grasp ideas — it’s been really good to watch her and Naomi (Girma) all week, the two exceptionally gifted football minds.”

While Hayes is focusing on tidying the smaller details on the field, she pointed time and time again to the much larger projects off of it, specifically around building trust with the players and the environment of the USWNT. Across every one of her media availabilities over the two days, couched these concepts within her role as an educator.

On the trust front, she’s still at the beginning. She mentioned her plans for individual one-on-ones with every player in New York City last week. Some of those still had yet to take place before the team left for Minnesota. Hayes said the coaching staff had to build trust across multiple formats, including “facilitation in the classroom.” But she was still in the earliest stage of building rapport with the players, getting to know them and their life stories.

“When you get that little bit of basics, the interactions start to happen, the opinions start to happen, once the opinions start to happen, we can go to the places we need,” she said on Friday.

Hayes had covered all of these same topics on day one in New York and linked the idea of a foundational trust between herself and the players, and the players among themselves, to the kind of environment she wanted to foster with the USWNT. She used many of the same descriptors in New York as she did in Colorado, but she focused more on football at first.

“I want to create an environment that everybody really enjoys being there, it’s fun, but it’s driven, performance-related,” she said in New York.

She then built upon this concept on Saturday, giving remarkably similar answers both to the broadcast crew and to reporters in her post-game press conference about the national team environment.

“They require a lot of different education,” Hayes said of the USWNT postgame on TV. “The job of a coach is to help, not just on a tactical level, but also on a personal level, and there’s work to be done. We want an environment that is tolerant, that’s respectful, even though there are differences.”

She then built upon this a few minutes later in the press conference room, adding “inclusive” to her list of environmental conditions, after being prompted by U.S. Soccer press officer Aaron Heifetz to add some comments about the younger players.

“I just want everybody to be patient,” she began. “They are learning, they want to give everything for this shirt, they want to give everything for their country. Off the pitch, some make mistakes, some have to learn. My job as a coach is to help teach them and guide them.”

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Horan during Saturday’s game (Justin Edmonds/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes stressed on Saturday that she wants every player to feel supported in the environment.

“I want to make sure when our players come and play and they represent the national team, I want you to know that I will always make sure I educate and do the right things in the background to make sure everybody adheres to that.”

If there was one element she wasn’t worried about impacting, it was the caring nature of the team, as she pointed to the team’s leadership core including captain Lindsey Horan, Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn and others.

“They understand what it means to play for the national team, and I’ve been so impressed with their guidance behind the scenes and how much they care for each other,” Hayes said.

For all of the work that still needs to happen in the locker room and in meeting rooms for the few days Hayes has left with the team before they return to their clubs, there’s also just the matter of getting the details and the process right for another round against South Korea in Minnesota on Tuesday night.

By all signs, the players are bought in and ready to go.

“We’ve definitely learned a lot, covered a lot in the past few days,” Sophia Smith said on Friday. “But right now, we’re focused on the process. It’s about implementing what we’ve learned so far. It’s not going to be perfect whatsoever. We want it to be perfect when it needs to be perfect. Right now, it’s just about doing what we’ve been working on, getting that chemistry on and off the field, and enjoying it.”

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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