United States
With Emma Hayes' arrival imminent, USWNT in a much improved position
United States

With Emma Hayes' arrival imminent, USWNT in a much improved position

Updated Apr. 17, 2024 3:57 p.m. ET

After the United States women's national team beat Canada in an epic penalty shootout and hoisted its record seventh SheBelieves Cup trophy in Columbus, Ohio last week, the group huddled on the pitch.

They took a moment to reflect on what they had accomplished: in the span of a month, the USWNT had won both the inaugural Concacaf W Gold Cup and the SheBelieves Cup. More broadly, over the past eight months, the team had recovered from heartbreak at the 2023 Women's World Cup, said goodbye to retiring legends Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz, onboarded new faces to the national team like Jaedyn Shaw and Jenna Nighswonger, and welcomed stars Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario back after lengthy injury layoffs, among other things.

Hovering over all of it was the fact that back in November, U.S. Soccer hired longtime Chelsea manager Emma Hayes to be the next USWNT boss. This was on the unusual condition that she wouldn't join the team fully until her club season was over in May. The Women's Super League runs through then, and the Champions League final is May 25, should the Blues make it that far. This raised some eyebrows, but U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker was certain this was the right decision.

In the interim, Twila Kilgore had the unique responsibility of serving as the USWNT's head coach. She's been in frequent communication with Hayes and has visited her in London, collaborated on rosters, lineups, tactics and more. She's been the intermediary for the players, who have not had much access to Hayes. Being in limbo is never easy, especially with the Paris Olympics beginning in July and only 18 roster spots available for the Games.


Now this period of transition is coming to a close. It's nearly May, which means Chelsea's season is almost over and Hayes is coming soon. The USWNT's next camp — which includes friendlies against Korea Republic on June 1 in Denver and on June 4 in St. Paul — will be Hayes' first time coaching the team.

And the U.S. is ready.

"Change has been on the horizon for a long time, they understand that change is coming," Kilgore said. "And to do all of this with a lot of uncertainty, I just think [the players] deserve so much credit for how they've operated. The professionalism, the way they control the controllables.

"And even though everybody's excited for Emma to come — and we're all ready for her and that's what we talked about in the huddle, that we're ready for this next phase, like we're ready and excited for the Olympics — it's hard. Uncertainty is hard."

Yes, it is. But as Kilgore prepares to hand the baton off to Hayes, an important question arises: Is the USWNT better positioned to win major tournament titles now than when it flew home from Melbourne, Australia last August?

The team believes it is. The squad needed time to regroup and "get back to our DNA," as Kilgore said, after the World Cup. Since its shocking loss to Sweden in the round of 16, the U.S. has gone 10-1-3, won trophies and beat formidable opponents that have qualified for the Olympics along the way.

"We set goals after the World Cup, wanted to make sure we were evolving tactically, wanted to grow in a lot of different areas, and they've done it," Kilgore said. "Now we're at a point where we are tried and true battle-tested."

The USWNT has also endured adversity and overcome it, and been determined and resilient. After a stunning loss to Mexico in the third match of the Gold Cup group stage, the U.S. responded by defeating Colombia in the quarterfinal, Canada in the semifinal (on a water-logged pitch), and Brazil in the final.

One month later, the U.S. did it all again. Japan scored 30 seconds into the SheBelieves Cup semifinal before the USWNT roared back to a convincing 2-1 win. Then in the final against Canada, it nearly had victory secured after coming back from another early deficit until a late PK forced a penalty shootout. Alyssa Naeher heroically saved three spot kicks and made one and the Americans triumphed.

"It just shows how much growth we've made since the World Cup," Sophia Smith said. "I think Twila has done a really good job of balancing a tough position in helping us move on from the World Cup, take the lessons that we needed, but at the same time, start a new chapter and start fresh. 

"Our chemistry on and off the field, you can see it in every game we play. We're getting better and better, and getting the results we want. We've had to fight back from being down and I think that shows a lot about the mentality of this group. Every game is not going to start exactly how we want, but it's how we finish it and we finished our games well and with confidence and I think that's a really exciting thing."

Perhaps more than any other player, the expectations surrounding the 23-year-old Smith at the World Cup were overwhelming. She was in form and primed to have a breakout tournament, specifically with Swanson unavailable due to a knee injury. Smith's face was plastered on buses and she was in commercials. She was going to be the USWNT's next big star.

After a brace in the first match, she didn't find the back of the net again — the Americans only scored three goals total in four matches. Smith missed a penalty kick in the shootout vs. Sweden and later said that took a toll on her mentally.

In the new USWNT system, as implemented by Hayes via Kilgore, Smith has found herself again. She scored a critical goal against Canada in the Gold Cup semifinal, did the dirty work and earned the game-winning PK in the SheBelieves Cup match against Japan, and then scored two goals against Canada in the final before being named tournament MVP. 

The forwards in particular have been fascinating to watch recently because anyone can play anywhere on the front line at any given time. "It's so much fun," Smith said. "We all are so different, but we mesh so well and I think this is just kind of the start of us all getting chemistry together." 

This position group might end up being the most intriguing to Hayes given the amount of talent and depth available, especially as she's spent years coaching superstars like Sam Kerr and Lauren James at Chelsea. How she views the rest of the lineup will also be telling with just a few months to go before the team heads to Paris — the USWNT has not won a gold medal since the 2012 London Games.

The next month and a half will be business as usual for Kilgore as she continues to support Hayes before she arrives on U.S. soil. In reflecting on her experience as head coach, Kilgore said she's most proud of "who we are right now" and "who we're becoming." 

"Every game we've played in the past few months has just built our confidence, built momentum going into a big tournament [at the Olympics this summer]," Smith said. "And I think we're in a very good place right now."

Will that result in hardware in Paris this summer or a World Cup title in 2027? We're about to find out.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.


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