Things are changing for the U.S. women's national team. With new manager Emma Hayes still coaching Chelsea until the end of the WSL season in England, things might not be changing quite as fast as some would like ahead of the 2024 Olympics. But make no mistake: they are changing.
Hayes hasn't officially begun coaching the USWNT. Still, although she wasn't on the sideline yelling out instructions or making key substitutions for either of the team's final games of 2023 -- 3-0 and 2-1 friendly wins over China -- her influence is starting to show itself within team.
When it came time to choose players for the USWNT's December camp, Hayes and interim manager Twila Kilgore "picked this roster collaboratively," Kilgore said in a news conference. Closer to the games themselves, the English coach flew from London to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to meet U.S. players and staff ahead of Saturday's 3-0 win.
Hayes is starting to make player decisions and put faces to names. Judging by the USWNT's tactical approach in these friendlies against China, she's calling some of the on-field shots, too, even from afar. Here's what has changed for the USWNT with Hayes lurking in the shadows.
A clearer, more fluid approach than the USWNT's World Cup style
Under previous coach Vlatko Andonovski, and even under Kilgore in the post-World Cup friendlies, the USWNT lacked attacking structure.
Far too often, players didn't know where to position themselves or where their teammates would be at any given moment. It sounds basic (and it is!), but without a clear structure, the USWNT struggled to work together to move the ball upfield and create chances. Attacks turned into individual U.S. players trying to charge their way through a defense rather than 11 U.S. players combining to play their way through a defense.
You can get a sense of the lack of cohesion in this screenshot from the USWNT's 0-0 draw with Portugal at the World Cup:
In their recent games against China, the USWNT had a clear, observable, and even fluid structure. Defensively, the U.S. used a 4-4-2 shape before shifting into a 3-2-5 in possession. Here's a look at that attacking shape:
Just so we don't miss anything, there are a few notable things here:
The U.S. having any attacking structure where players know where to be and where their teammates will be.
The U.S. using noticeably different shapes in possession and defensive phases.
The U.S. consistently possessing in a back three.
Sure, there have been flashes of structure, fluidity, and three-woman backlines from the USWNT in the past. But compared with, say, the World Cup, those three things are refreshing. Players seemed to have a solid grasp of their roles in each phase of the game, which gave them the freedom to interchange off the ball and combine while on it. Clarity, then, led to creativity for the United States.
There's still plenty of damage to be undone in the attack from the last tournament cycle -- one camp isn't enough to fix that. But for a team that already has excellent defensive bones, even small gains in possession are hugely valuable.
Sophia Smith moved from the wing to striker
For two years now, Sophia Smith has been the best striker in the NWSL. With great off-ball movement, speed and the ability to create her own shot, she scores goals for fun at the top of the Portland Thorns' attack. With the national team, though, Smith has almost exclusively been used on the wing, with Alex Morgan eating up minutes through the middle.
That wasn't the case in this window against China. Smith played 45 minutes in both games as the USWNT's center-forward, leading the line, breaking in behind the opposing defense and scoring in the first match. Few players in the world make this classic goal scoring run better than Smith as she latched onto the end of Trinity Rodman's assist over the weekend.
Soph + Trin, that's good soccer. pic.twitter.com/6Y9XrkJS5V— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) December 2, 2023
Smith wasn't especially efficient in front of goal as she started the first match. "I need to put away my chances... I have to put away my chances," she repeated on the broadcast during halftime of Saturday's game against China. But consistently finding dangerous opportunities in the box is the mark of an elite striker. Smith checks that box with a bright neon yellow highlighter.
With Morgan heading into the final stages of her career, now is the time for the U.S. to take full advantage of Smith's ability to be an ever-threatening scorer in her best position.
Herculez Gomez says there are better candidates than Trinity Rodman for Emma Hayes to make the linchpin of her USWNT team.
Emily Fox thrives at... center-back?
Emily Fox has never been your standard, run-of-the-mill fullback. The 25-year-old doesn't love getting up and down the field. She's a solid athlete, but lacks the elite speed and one-on-one dribbling chops to overlap and cause real problems for opposing backlines. Instead, Fox thrives as a simple, effective ball progresser. She's clean in possession and makes quick decisions, creating a stable foundation for her more advanced teammates.
She was a key part of the North Carolina Courage's possession approach in 2023, moving the ball upfield as a fullback/central midfielder hybrid for coach Sean Nahas. Fox finished in the 98th percentile for progressive passes per 90 minutes and the 95th percentile for progressive carries per 90 among NWSL fullbacks, per FBref.com. Even before she was traded to the possession-heavy Courage, Fox put up well-above-average progression numbers for Racing Louisville.
In the USWNT's latest games, Fox continued her trend of doing something different from the fullback spot.
In Tuesday's 2-1 win, she was tasked with getting up and down the right side. She didn't have a huge impact on the game before coming off at halftime as a concussion substitution. That could well be because of the potential head injury, or it could be that Fox is more comfortable playing deeper downfield (or some combination of the two).
In Saturday's 3-0 win, though, she defended as a left-back and stayed deeper in possession as a left-sided center-back, looking much more comfortable along the way. Within the solid U.S. framework, Fox even reprised part of her club role by swapping with Lindsey Horan to move into midfield.
Without a ton of obvious center-back options demanding minutes next to Naomi Girma, and with the extra flexibility Fox (or Jenna Nighswonger, who played the same role) brings to the backline, expect to see more of her flexible positioning in the future.
19-year-old Jaedyn Shaw earns a bigger role
She's only four appearances into her national team career, but Jaedyn Shaw looks ready to take the USWNT's creative reins. During the most recent international break back in October, Shaw played 48 minutes across two games against Colombia. In this December window, the 19-year-old earned 131 minutes. Tasked with playing in the right half-space in the USWNT's attack, Shaw found the back of the net on Tuesday and pulled so many of the strings in the final third.
She used her off-ball movement to crash China's box and find gaps in their defense. On the ball, Shaw turned her great vision and right foot into five key passes over the two games.
Now, it's difficult to tie Shaw's specific involvement back to Hayes -- there's every possibility that Kilgore already had plans to ease Shaw into action at the national team level during these post-World Cup friendlies. Back in September, Shaw was called into camp but didn't see the field. In the October camp, she made her debut. In the December camp, then, maybe the plan was always to push Shaw into a larger role.
Or maybe not. Maybe Hayes pushed for Shaw to see more of the action. Regardless of where the motivation to expand Shaw's responsibilities came from, it's paying early dividends for the USWNT. The young playmaker was more involved and more impactful against China than any of her teammates vying for minutes in those attacking midfield and half-space roles.
With Shaw stepping up and debuts for Nighswonger, Olivia Moultrie and Korbin Albert, Hayes now has more data on players who could occupy key roles for her team at next summer's Olympics and beyond. That was surely a goal for the new manager when she helped select this December roster, even from across the Atlantic.