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How the USWNT should approach Emma Hayes’ delayed start

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Emma Hayes will collaborate with USWNT interim coach Twila Kilgore from afar until May. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

When the U.S. women’s national team announced their December roster this week, the last camp of the calendar year clearly marked a season of change. Former manager Vlatko Andonovski is long gone, his successor has been named, and a fresh group of players will have a chance to prove themselves before the work of 2024 begins.

Still, the process used for the most recent roster selection, and what comes next, is open for debate. The USWNT is still reeling from an uncharacteristic World Cup, in which the team won just one match before being eliminated in the Round of 16 at the hands of Sweden. The result warranted a shift change in direction, but the reality of the USWNT’s current position might require more incremental change.

The team’s upcoming friendlies against China PR are technically the first under new manager Emma Hayes, but the team will be managed by committee for the next six months. Interim manager Twila Kilgore will guide the squad through the 2024 Gold Cup, and Hayes will step in full-time in May, with four games remaining until the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The bottom line is that this schedule is necessary for the U.S. to land Hayes, U.S. Soccer’s preferred candidate by a mile. Hayes has an understanding of the U.S. development system and an impressive managerial resume with Chelsea FC that includes both season-long and Cup trophies. She has communicated bold opinions about larger systemic issues that have eroded the USWNT’s dominance on the world stage, and her ability to scout and develop players at the club level has few rivals.

“What became apparent was that the best candidate in this process wasn’t available right [away],” U.S. Soccer technical director Matt Crocker told the media this week. “But just seeing Twila evolve and develop into and show her leadership qualities, I became really confident that we could manage and have an interim plan that could ensure that we could have our cake and eat it.”

While U.S. Soccer is confident in the team’s long-term future, the current plan requires a tightrope walk on a short timeline. The USWNT’s 2023 World Cup performance has left the team bracing for transition both in personnel and in tactical approach, with some tough choices to make before the Olympic roster is set. Crocker has said he wants the U.S. to become a more possession-based team with the flexibility to handle different types of opponents. He has also acknowledged that, for Hayes to oversee those changes, the USWNT might have to de-prioritize Olympic gold.

“We can start to implement some of those changes both on the pitch and off the pitch that we want to see the team become in the future,” he said this week. “And it will be an evolving process that starts now, and you can see that from the roster that’s been picked.”

Kilgore told reporters on Monday that she created the provisional roster for this international break, and that list was sent to Hayes. The two coaches then consulted one another on the final 26-player list. Kilgore has been very cognizant of the job in front of her, first as a coach on staff for Andonovski’s tenure and now as the person who will be relied upon to make day-to-day decisions until Hayes arrives.

“I think it’s important to remember that nobody’s ever irreplaceable,” Kilgore said, “And the fact that Matt and Emma trust me to help move the team forward in the interim is really empowering.”

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Twila Kilgore has earned the respect of USWNT players in her time as interim coach. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Kilgore has earned the opportunity to oversee the USWNT’s next phase, with players across the board responding positively to her stewardship of the team. But her handling of the two international windows prior to Hayes’ hiring also produced lingering questions.

Kilgore walked into a difficult situation, having to absorb a team coming off their worst-ever World Cup result after the resignation of their coach of the last four years. She clearly took a soft touch in the aftermath, building on a tactically conservative Round of 16 performance that produced more flashes of strong play than in the group stage. The U.S. also got a chance to say goodbye to two beloved teammates in Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe, a task that can distract even the most focused players, especially after an emotional tournament exit.

But then in the following international break, Kilgore fell into a common pitfall as a manager. Rather than taking the emotional boost from September to introduce a greater fluidity in the USWNT’s style of play, she continued with the hyper-pragmatic approach. She stuck very closely to the team’s World Cup starting lineups without a huge step forward from that group, leaving the last four friendlies feeling unsatisfactory for many.

Kilgore had said in September that she didn’t put too much weight into the team’s current 4-2-3-1 formation, intending for things to not be as stringent as in the last year of Andonovski’s tenure.

“Formation sometimes, it’s just five yards here or five yards there,” she said at the time. But the U.S. continued to struggle to score against Colombia in October, going three consecutive halves without a goal as players looked just as cautious in their positioning as ever.

An infusion of fresh talent assuaged some of the tactical issues, with San Diego Wave standout Jaedyn Shaw and new Chelsea signing Mia Fishel scoring and looking like exciting options for the future in the team’s attack. But the USWNT left October with many of the same questions that have plagued them since their World Cup disappointment.

December will provide another opportunity to dig into the USWNT’s current issues and look for their solutions. Many veterans were left off the roster, allowing experienced players to regain their legs and manage burnout after a taxing year while giving opportunities to newer faces that can provide different strengths. Who will be invited back into the fold in the new year remains to be seen, but it’s clear that whoever is in camp needs to be given a fresh influx of ideas both in and out of possession.

“I’m most excited to talk more football, and to continue to listen and learn about how [Hayes] wants us to play,” Kilgore said this week. “And those are all things that will happen more and more in the future when she’s not as tied to Chelsea.”

Hayes’ Chelsea commitments aren’t going anywhere in the short term, and the USWNT seen in December will be as much Kilgore’s as their new long-term manager’s. With more work to be done to become competitive again against the world’s best, the USWNT now begins the difficult balance of maintaining confidence in the current group while being open to growing pains. Kilgore’s ability to keep a steady hand on the wheel could make all the difference in 2024.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.