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New era begins for U.S. Women’s National Team with friendly vs. China in Fort Lauderdale

The Emma Hayes Era won’t officially begin until May 2024 for the U.S. Women’s National Team, two months before the Paris Olympics; but the newly hired coach flew from England to Fort Lauderdale this week to meet with U.S. players and staff as the team prepares for a pair of friendly matches against China.

The first is Saturday at 3 p.m. at DRV PNK Stadium. The teams will meet again three days later in Frisco, Texas.

Hayes became the highest-paid female soccer coach in the world earlier this month when she was hired away from Chelsea to restore Team USA, the four-time World Cup champion, to its former glory after it crashed out of the 2023 World Cup in the Round of 16 with a loss to Sweden in a penalty kick shootout.

It was the earliest exit in U.S. team history, and a bitter disappointment after back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2019.

Hayes reportedly will earn close to the $1.6 million salary U.S. men’s coach Gregg Berhalter makes. She remains fully committed to Chelsea until the end of the domestic season, and interim coach Twila Kilgore will be in charge for the time being, but Hayes is in communication with Kilgore and her imprint on the team is already being seen.

“I need to be conscious and aware that Emma’s in a full-time job that is very busy right now, and it’s one of the top club jobs in the world. I have the ability to reach out to her at any time, she’ll make time for me at any point and vice versa,” Kilgore said on a media conference call last week.

“We are very collaborative. We’re sharing information, knowledge sharing. In terms of the roster, I was able to share my ideas with Emma, and she was able to share her ideas with me…We picked this roster collaboratively and we will do so moving forward.”

Six World Cup players were left off the roster for the China matches, including 34-year-old forward Alex Morgan, 35-year-old goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, 38-year-old defender Becky Sauerbrunn, midfielder Ashley Sanchez, midfielder Andi Sullivan, and defender Sofia Huerta. Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz retired after the World Cup.

Among the World Cup players who made the roster were Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman.

United States forward Sophia Smith (11) runs drills during team practice at the Florida Blue Training Center on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
United States forward Sophia Smith (11) runs drills during team practice at the Florida Blue Training Center on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The two newcomers are Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Korbin Albert and NJ/NY Gotham FC midfielder and NWSL Rookie of the Year Jenna Nighswonger. Eleven players on the roster have fewer than 10 appearances with the national team.

As the players gathered at Inter Miami’s training facility Tuesday morning, there was palpable energy in the air.

“I think there’s a general excitement in the group, Emma Hayes being named the new coach, there’s been this shift since the World Cup,” said defender Naomi Girma. “It’s more official now. We have our direction and know what we’re building towards. We have new faces coming in and that brings a new dynamic to camp.”

Lindsay Horan, one of the veterans on the squad at age 29, agreed. Horan plays in France for Olympique Lyon and has had an up-close look at Hayes’ success in Europe.

“We are so very happy and honored to have Emma as our coach,” Horan said. “So many great things she’s done over the course of her career, and with Chelsea, even though they’re a main competitor of mine right now. We don’t get her full-time until May, but Twila is doing great with the team as well.”

Hayes became Chelsea’s coach in 2012 and led the team to the last four Women’s Super League titles. Prior to joining Chelsea, Hayes, a native of England, worked in the United States coaching the Long Island Lady Riders, Iona University and the Chicago Red Stars.

Her combination of experience on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean made her a perfect candidate for the job.

“Obviously, her resume speaks for itself, that winning mentality,” Girma said. “She’ll bring a new perspective on our team and our players, and I’m excited to learn for her. Excited for what she’s going to bring to our group...No one’s expectations are higher than us within this group.”

United States defender Naomi Girma (15) reacts during team practice at the Florida Blue Training Center on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
United States defender Naomi Girma (15) reacts during team practice at the Florida Blue Training Center on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Horan said the team is eager to hear Hayes’ assessment of the group’s strengths and weaknesses, and motivated to win the Olympic gold medal in Paris.

“We’re just going to focus on moving forward, the team is fully, fully motivated, as we always are after any big tournament, win or loss; obviously, there’s extra motivation right now because that’s not how we wanted to go out (of the World Cup),” Horan said. “Anyone would be critical of our team coming off this World Cup. We have to deep dive in and see what went wrong and what needs to be done and how we can progress.

“That is the job of the new coach, to come in and see what the team needs. There’s so much talent on this team and I don’t think the world has seen enough of it yet because we need to go out and show it, mesh together and show everything we have and be a powerhouse again.”

Tickets for the USA vs. China game Saturday at DRV PNK Stadium start at $25 and are available through TicketMaster.