US auditions are over, now Hayes must pick her Olympics squad

ST. PAUL, Minnesota — United States women’s national team head coach Emma Hayes is still learning some of the American sports lingo in her first weeks on the job.

On Tuesday, under a steady rain at Allianz Field that reminded the British coach of home, Hayes implored her team to finish off a South Korea team that rarely threatened the Americans, but trailed by only one goal at that point.

“‘I want you to put your pedal to the metal,'” Hayes recalled telling the team. “And [assistant coach Denise Reddy] said to me, ‘Don’t you ever say that again!'”

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

As awkward as it might have been, it worked. The USWNT scored two more times — including a debut goal for 16-year-old midfielder Lily Yohannes in her first cap — to win, 3-0.

Now comes crunch time for Hayes, to borrow another uniquely American sports phrase. After two games in charge and just over a week of training, she must select her 18-player Olympic roster in the coming weeks. Some players’ performances on Tuesday made the job that much harder.

Yohannes shot up that list after making an immediate impact in her much-anticipated debut. Her late goal punctuated a solid 20 minutes of distribution in midfield, including a pass to Trinity Rodman moments earlier that led to Rodman ripping a shot off the crossbar.

The midfield, though, was already crowded even before Yohannes saw the field. The USWNT’s starting trio of Korbin Albert, Rose Lavelle, and captain Lindsey Horan helped control the game on Tuesday against a South Korea side that once again sat in a low block of five defenders. Hayes has praised Horan throughout this camp as a team leader, and Lavelle is a known entity who earned her 100th cap on Tuesday; she is arguably the team’s most creative player.

Albert is much newer to the mix, but the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder has quickly proven she can compete at this level. On Tuesday, Albert and Horan combined to dictate the pace of the game, patiently waiting for the right moments to pull South Korea out of its defensive shape. It wasn’t always perfect, but it was effective in the right moments. Above all, it was patient.

“I think a big thing for us is just being more patient on both ends of the ball, not just going forward every single time,” Lavelle said. “I think it’s just [being] patient with our movement, patient with our shifting side to side with the ball, and finding different ways to beat their forwards, beat their midfield, and break them down.”

Hayes made nine changes from the lineup that defeated South Korea 4-0 three days earlier in Colorado. The goal, Hayes said on Monday, would be to give new players an opportunity to process the information “overload” that the staff had thrown at them all week and show that they can apply it in a game setting. Among the players ostensibly on the bubble to make Hayes’ Olympic roster, Albert did that as well as anyone on Tuesday.

There is context, however, to her on-field success. Albert’s prior social media activity — which surfaced in March — appeared to support anti-LGBTQIA+ content and make light of an injury to former U.S. winger Megan Rapinoe. Albert apologized and the team held internal discussions in an April camp that were not shared publicly. Albert remained on that roster and was called up again for this camp.

Hayes made pointed comments on Saturday that she expects a tolerant environment in the locker room, and her words about players needing to feel supported when they take the field came in the aftermath of Albert being booed by the home crowd in Colorado on Saturday.

“I want everybody to be patient,” Hayes said on Saturday. “There are a lot of younger players. On the pitch, they are learning, but they want to give everything for their shirt and they want to give everything for their country. Off the pitch, some make mistakes. Some have to learn. My job as a coach is to help teach them and guide them.”

In pure soccer terms — an oversimplification, no doubt — Hayes and her staff appear to rate the versatile Albert, and the midfielder’s performance on Tuesday will have reaffirmed that. How Albert, Yohannes, and others potentially fit into the USWNT’s Olympic roster is the mental gymnastics that will occupy Hayes in the coming weeks. Horan and Lavelle are veterans with World Cup titles. Defensive midfielder Sam Coffey has become a regular, including alongside Albert in the team’s Concacaf W Gold Cup triumph earlier this year, and is the best pure defensive midfielder in the pool.

Then there are the questions of where to play versatile attackers Catarina Macario and Jaedyn Shaw. Macario started as the USWNT’s No. 10 on Saturday, while Shaw started in a hybrid winger role on Tuesday. She struggled to find the game in the first half before coming alive in the second half, including when she moved into the No. 10 role. That reiterated a trend: Shaw is clearly best suited to the No. 10 role, but the same can be said for several equally talented players.

Defensively, Hayes got further affirmation on Tuesday that Jenna Nighswonger is the real deal as a left-footed, left full-back who can press high up onto the forward line. Nighswonger assisted the USWNT’s opening goal — scored by Crystal Dunn, who started at forward for the team for the first time in nearly seven years. Nighswonger was magnetic on the ball on Tuesday and one of only two players, alongside Horan, to start both games against South Korea.

She played next to left-sided center-back Sam Staab, who earned her first international start. Staab’s steady play in the National Women’s Soccer League seemed to long warrant a call-up, but that did not come until the most recent camp. She stepped into the role seamlessly on Tuesday, nearly scoring on a set-piece in the first half.

“I think it was worth it and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Staab said of the long wait for her first cap.

Hayes is not short of talent to choose from. She has spoken frequently about the need for balance between this rising group of young stars and the veterans who got the team to where it is now. <

That includes forward Alex Morgan, who started in the No. 9 role on Tuesday and earned Hayes’ praise for working hard despite limited touches against South Korea’s low block. Morgan’s spin-turn sparked the transition play that led to Dunn’s early goal.

A wave of USWNT substitutions at the hour mark opened up the game. The connection between Rodman, Sophia Smith and Mallory Swanson was easy to see, though they all came on with fresh legs against a tired South Korea defense.

An exhausted Hayes appeared to be losing her voice after Tuesday’s match. She’s been going for 10 months straight, she said, referring to how she spent the entire European season with Chelsea before joining the USWNT a few days after that job ended in May. She said she will meet with her staff on Wednesday morning and then she needs the rest of the week to rest before heading to U.S. Soccer’s headquarters in Chicago to plan the road to the Olympics.

“[The group’s] not afraid of letting go of things we have to let go of,” Hayes said Tuesday, among a chorus of praises for players. “Bold enough, brave enough to want whatever it takes to improve. I’ve been so impressed with them as people.”

Hayes must now choose which of those people she’ll invite along for the ride to the 2024 Olympics and press down on the gas pedal. The Olympics begin next month.