College Football & Soccer Analyst
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Mia Fishel had no idea who U.S. Soccer was going to hire to be the next women’s national team head coach.
But the young Chelsea forward knew something was up when her club coach, Emma Hayes, called a meeting on Nov. 4 while the team was on the road at Aston Villa. Fishel thought it was odd – usually they don’t use other clubs’ facilities for their own meetings. Then 10 minutes before, Fishel received an email from U.S. Soccer that had been sent to players letting them know: Hayes would be the next USWNT head coach.
“I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?'” Fishel told FOX Sports. “I mean, it was just crazy.”
Fishel was in an awkward position because she knew what the meeting was about, but most of her teammates did not. Catarina Macario is the only other American who plays for Chelsea.
Hayes couldn’t say much, just that she needed to prioritize her family. Chelsea later released a statement saying that Hayes was leaving to “pursue a new opportunity outside of the Women’s Super League and club football.” Because of her longstanding commitment to Chelsea — she’s been there since 2012 and guided the London club to six WSL titles and five FA Cups — Hayes will not take over the USWNT until the WSL season is over in May. She hopes to go out with a Champions League title.
There’s a lot of excitement and curiosity surrounding Hayes coming to the U.S. Her charge is to revolutionize the team after a disappointing summer at the World Cup. The USWNT suffered its earliest exit ever at a major tournament after losing to Sweden in the round of 16 following a dramatic penalty shootout. After the tournament, won by Spain, the U.S. lost its FIFA world No. 1 ranking, dropping to No. 3 behind Sweden and Spain.
While there was a palpable excitement among players and staffers at training camp this past week, Fishel is the only player who truly understands why Hayes is the right choice and what the USWNT can expect.
“I went [to Chelsea] because of Emma,” said Fishel, who joined the club in August after spending two years playing for Tigres in Mexico. “Obviously winning titles, and [the fact that] she’s a well-respected coach around the world, I mean, I had asked other coaches about her and they just speak so highly of her.
“And now with U.S. Soccer in this transition from one coach to another and it’s her. I was so excited because I know what she can do for this team and how she’s going to change it for the better.”
Fishel said that once the Hayes news went public, her Chelsea teammates talked all kinds of smack. She was sitting next to Canadian fullback and midfielder Ashley Lawrence when the U.S. Soccer email popped into her inbox. Lawrence, according to Fishel, was like, “no way.”
“Everyone at that point was like, ‘You guys always get what you want.’ That’s what they said!” Fishel said, with a big smile. “Everyone hates the U.S. for many reasons and I mean, this is another one. ‘You guys get whatever you guys want. You’re so spoiled. You had to take her.’
“And I was like, ‘Yep!'”
But this is bittersweet for Fishel because players spend more quality time in their club environments and with those coaches than they do with their respective national teams. Chelsea will undoubtedly hire another world-class coach, and Fishel isn’t complaining. Playing for the USWNT has always been a dream and she believes “this program is in safe hands.”
“It’s really cool,” Fishel said about what it’s like to be coached by Hayes. “I feel like I can ask her anything, be it positionally, about life. She likes to win, so I’m just learning every day.
“Tactically, we play such a different style from the States and I’m trying to be a sponge and [understand] if this team does that then we do that. And I think that’s the other side of Emma that’s also great is that she’s able to adapt to different formations. She always has something. She’s never stuck. If you have questions, she’s always answering them and making me a better player.”
[At USWNT camp, ‘vibes are high’ around incoming coach Emma Hayes]
Hayes visited the USWNT last week at the beginning of its final camp of the year. She addressed the team, laid out her vision for the next six months in the lead up to the 2024 Paris Olympics and beyond, and focused on starting to build relationships. She explained that while she won’t be with the team physically until the spring, she’s invested and will be in frequent communication with interim coach Twila Kilgore.
“Once she’s in and actually gets here, [she will install] her coaching style, how she wants to play, bringing her tactics to this game and obviously her mindset of winning – like, she’s really big on winning,” Fishel said. “After the World Cup, everyone wants us to be back at the top. And I think that’s what she’s planning on doing.”
This summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand served as a wake-up call for the four-time champions. After years of talking about how the rest of the world was catching up, the rest of the world not only caught up, but surpassed the Americans in various ways. Spain and England were perfect examples, showing off their tactical and technical flair all the way to the final.
It was crystal clear to U.S. sporting director Matt Crocker, who was appointed to the role in April, that the squad needed to be better in possession, have more solutions in beating low blocks and building the attack, exploit opponents in different ways and be more creative, among other things.
Following the World Cup, and the resignation of former coach Vlatko Andonovski, Crocker conducted a review with players as the federation does after every major tournament. He asked for feedback from the past four-year cycle and what they want to see in a new manager moving forward. The consensus was that the USWNT needed a leader who could develop relationships, build trust in the locker room, communicate well and make bold in-game decisions when needed.
Crocker compiled a list of candidates and put them through an intense and thorough interview process which, according to U.S. Soccer, included “psychometrics and abstract reasoning tests, in-depth discussions of strategy, coaching philosophy and the current player pool, as well as evaluation on the reactions to pressure, culture-building and interactions with player and staff.”
[USWNT’s hire of Emma Hayes is really a necessary admission]
Ultimately, the USWNT landed Hayes.
“You couldn’t have picked a better coach for our team in my opinion,” Sophia Smith told FOX Sports. “It was definitely a relief because there was a lot of buildup going into it and wondering who it would be.
“I’m just beyond excited because I think, even for me individually, she can teach me so much and push me and be hard on me and I love that in a coach because I want to continue to keep growing and so does everyone on this team. And it’s a young team, so I think she’s the perfect person to put all the pieces together.”
Captain Lindsey Horan added that Hayes is “a breath of fresh air” and said the chance to briefly sit down with her one-on-one “amazing.”
USWNT beat China 3-0, as the Emma Hayes era begins!
When Hayes met with the team in Fort Lauderdale, players didn’t really know how to act at first. Meeting your new boss – who will decide if you make rosters – can be intimidating. But Hayes cracked a few jokes to lighten the mood and show a bit of her charismatic personality and ease any tension that might have existed.
Players said it was “motivational” and “inspiring” to hear Hayes talk because of everything she’s achieved in her career.
“She wants to coach this team, wants to take this team to the next level and you can see that. You can feel it. You can hear it,” Horan told FOX Sports. “I think that’s what’s great for us because we need that. We need that leadership to really take us over because we have talented players and need to mesh it all together to get to that next level.”
Most of all, Horan said it was Hayes’ voice that stuck out in that meeting.
“It makes you want to listen,” Horan said. “Football is changing so much. The modern game is so much more with the ball and not just based off physical dominance, which we’ve always had. And I think that’s what I really like. We have so much work to do, but it’s exciting work.
“And I think Emma will take us there.”
[How the USWNT is preparing for the arrival of ‘serial winner’ Emma Hayes]
One of the areas where the U.S. has struggled is making adjustments during games. It was something the squad was unable to do well at the World Cup. Fishel recalled a recent Chelsea match against Paris FC where Hayes did that successfully and it worked to their advantage. Leading just 1-0 at halftime, Hayes shifted from a double pivot with two holding defensive midfielders to a single one after the break which ultimately helped Chelsea win, 4-1.
“She felt that we were crowding the space, which made it hard to get out from the defensive line, so she made the other No. 6 higher up which created more of a gap for our other six to bounce the ball back and switch it out,” Fishel said. “I thought that was really clever because it felt like we were stuck. I didn’t realize why we were stuck, but we just needed more space to get out and obviously attack, because that’s what we love to do.”
While Hayes not starting fully for another six months or so is not ideal, Crocker was confident when he made the decision to hire her that it would be worth the wait.
It seems now that the players have met her – and seen how much Australian superstar striker Sam Kerr and Chelsea captain Millie Bright will miss her in London – they agree. They believe they can win a gold medal at the Olympics next year and they believe she is the right manager to unlock championship potential moving forward.
“That’s the only thing on her mind,” Fishel said. “She only cares about winning the right way with the right team and when she has that in her mind, she’s gonna get it.”
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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