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Alexander: Emma Hayes era in U.S. women’s soccer begins

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As if things haven’t been frenetic enough for Emma Hayes in her short time – five weeks max – on the ground in this country to get the U.S. women’s national team ready for this month’s Olympic soccer competition in Paris, the new coach was hit with this question at a pre-Olympic news conference Monday in New York, from Ronald Blum of The Associated Press:

“Given all the issues of gender equity in the U.S. soccer community, if the senior (men’s) team were to bring in a high-priced coach like (Jürgen) Klopp, making $5-10 million, would you feel a need that they give you a raise to that level?”

Oof.

Her task is challenging enough – taking over a program with outsized expectations, trying to steer it into the future with young talent as the generation of players that created those expectations steps away, and dealing with a world that has caught up with and passed the Americans. And now she was asked to opine on what a potential men’s coaching change might mean in terms of equal pay for equal work, a concept that had the players at odds with their federation for the longest time.

Hayes sidestepped this one deftly.

“Well, thanks for the question,” she said. “I think as far as I’m concerned, you know, my focus today is on preparing our team for our training camp this week. I have to think about that. And I have to think about performing first and foremost, myself, with this team, this Olympics.

“I think with regards to matters relating to the men’s team and gender equity, they’re not questions for now or for me, knowing that my absolute focus is on the preparation this week.”

Welcome back to America, Emma!

For perspective, Hayes is reportedly earning $1.6 million, the same amount that current (for now) men’s coach Gregg Berhalter is paid, and four times as much as former women’s head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s salary. So if U.S. Soccer fires Berhalter and opens the vault for a high-profile men’s coach, maybe we will in fact be hearing more about the equal pay question.

To add further perspective, Hayes and Klopp – who is beginning his own sabbatical from Liverpool – are friends. In an ESPN interview earlier this year, Hayes said when they talked after she took the U.S. job, they discussed “getting to the end of our careers with our clubs, and how difficult it is, how intense it is. You have to deliver an awful lot on and off the pitch in our positions. And it takes its toll and we just gave words of encouragement to each other, to be honest. Lots of support.”

The day-to-day grind across the pond may be all encompassing, but this challenge is not small: A roster with a lot to prove and a short time to get there.

The program that boasts four Women’s World Cup titles and Olympic gold in 2004, ’08 and ’12, and was No. 1 in FIFA’s world rankings for 80 consecutive months from March 2008 through November 2014, has lost its dominance. The USWNT won bronze at the 2021 Tokyo Games after not medaling at all in 2016 in Rio, and was knocked out in the Round of 16 in last year’s Women’s World Cup.

Hayes, 47, was hired by the federation in November with the understanding she would finish the season with Chelsea, where she won her seventh Women’s Super League title and fifth in a row – and, among other achievements, was honored with the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – before departing for her next adventure. She consulted with interim U.S. coach and current assistant Twila Kilgore regularly while managing her own club, and finally assumed hands-on control around the end of May.

She is English but no stranger to the U.S., having coached a USL women’s team in Long Island for one season and Iona University for three in the early 2000s, and returning to coach the NWSL Chicago Red Stars from 2008-10 before being fired.

She is here largely because, for all of her success at Chelsea, the day-to-day demands of managing a club in the birthplace of what was originally called Association Football are wearing. The responsibility as steward of U.S. women’s soccer is immense, but it’s not the same day-to-day-to-day burden.

Hayes has already caused some tremors, leaving Alex Morgan off the Olympic roster. Morgan, who turned 35 last week, has been part of the nucleus that not only succeeded magnificently on the pitch but did so while suing their federation for equal pay and working conditions and creating a legacy as agents of change.

And even if the rest of the world has caught up, history and legacy and those four stars above the crest send a message: The standard is still the standard.

“We always want to be at the top of that podium at the end of the day,” captain Lindsey Horan said at Monday’s New York press conference. “I think after the World Cup we really regrouped and we’ve been working extremely hard over this past year and especially these last few months. And with Emma coming in and everything that she’s done and contributed, I think it’s a very exciting time.

“And I mean, you look at the young players coming in, the leaders on this team … I think what you’re going to see and what’s in store for us is incredible. We want a gold medal at the end of the day.”

The hurry-up conditions will be no excuse. Hayes said she believes her team is “very” prepared.

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“Like Lindsey said, a lot of that work has been done over the last year, you know, reflecting from the World Cup and then putting the roster together bit by bit, over the course of the year,” she said.

“Getting everybody in camp, getting everybody together, getting everybody playing together, for me, they’re the most important things at this moment in time. And we’ll start to see how our team shapes up game by game, day by day.”

And so the challenge begins.

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