All Scores

How the USWNT should approach Emma Hayes’ delayed start

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.”

img
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.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

Start your morning off right with Just Women’s Sports’ free, 5x-a-week newsletter.